Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Most Important Visual Feast of the Day: "Breakfast of Champions" (1999)

I do not pretend to "get" this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s novel, but I certainly enjoyed the ride.

Vonnegut is almost impossible to film, "Slaughterhouse Five" is the most successful, while I have reserved a special place in my bowel tract for Jerry Lewis in "Slapstick (of Another Kind)." The plot, for what it is, goes a little something like this. Bruce Willis is Dwayne Hoover, who runs a giant car dealership in Midland City.

His spaced out wife Barbara Hershey pops pills and watches television all day. His son Lukas Haas is a lounge singer, dropping his first name George in exchange for Bunny. Nick Nolte is Willis' sales manager, a paranoid cross dresser. Glenne Headly is Willis' receptionist and mistress. Willis does not seem to be going through a midlife crisis so much as a nervous breakdown. The people around him notice a change to his behavior, as his sincere grin flashes on his commercials, which play nonstop, he is in his own personal hell. He is asking the question many of us ask: why are we here?

As his life crumbles around him, he sticks a gun in his mouth three different times, never following through with a way out that would not answer his ultimate question. Omar Epps is a released prison inmate who wants to work for Dwayne Hoover just because their names are similar. He probably gets the most mainstream laughs, as he lives out of his new car on the car lot, turning it into something nicer than a few of my former apartments.

Into this nightmarish fray comes writer Albert Finney. He has written two hundred novels and two thousand short stories, but they have all been published by porno mags and hardcore sex novel publishers. He is invited to Midland City for an arts festival, and the novel he has may contain the answer to life that Willis is looking for. The film lurches along through Willis and company's day.

Everyone has a quirk, and that may be a detriment, as the viewer has trouble latching onto someone to help wade through all the eye candy. Director Rudolph impresses, throwing in visual effects that dazzle. He also wrote the screenplay, and shows a true affection for the source novel. Mark Isham's musical score is perfect- Muzak on crack.

The performances in this over the top story are brilliant. Willis has not been able to be this loose onscreen in a very long time, and he seems to be having a ball. There are no bad actors here, and look for Owen Wilson and Michael Clarke Duncan in small roles.

The description of this film on the video box likens this to a mainstream comedy, and that is a huge mistake. People renting this and expecting "Airplane!" or some Adam Sandler drivel are going to be supremely disappointed. This is weird, deep stuff that a lot of people out there will not consider their cup of tea.

On the other hand, Rudolph pulls out all the stops, shows us the weird and crazy, then tries to get us to care about the plot. In fact, this film is not a plot driven film, it is character driven, but Rudolph tries to keep this one convention in an otherwise unconventional film.

This is truly one of the most bizarre films ever made, right on the line with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Where drugs fueled the mania in that impossible film, here the mania is caused by something we deal with everyday- life. (* * * *) out of five stars.