CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)

COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:

IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.

IN THE MOVIE: Some or none or all of the above happens. It is honest to God impossible to tell. If you ran the book through a blender and threw it in the air and filmed it however it landed, you’d get identical results. Rudolph focuses on all of the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. I left out whole families of characters in the above paragraph, because I have sense to focus on the important stuff. I also didn’t mention most of the things that give Vonnegut his enormous depth, hidden in simple, beige prose, because he packs more ideas per character than the average writer, and you’ll go barking mad if you try to encapsulate it all. But nuts to that, says Rudolph the butchering director. He grabs and discards chunks of pages willy-nilly, making up garbage to fill the void of the ideas he can’t understand. The cast runs around and says things, things happen, and that’s the most anybody can say about the movie.

We’ve left out 99% of everything there is to describe about this dumpster fire, and yet we still have little space to answer the question: Is Breakfast of Champions at least a weird movie? And the answer is: NO. It’s not interesting enough to be weird. It has no intent, no focus, no direction, no thoughts, no linear causality; you could play it backwards and have the same movie. It’s 110 minutes of babbling nonsense, embarrassing simply to describe. In the audiobook version of the novel, Vonnegut himself called the movie “painful to watch.” It’s not weird for the same reason that staring at the ground for 110 minutes isn’t weird—it’s just boring and uncomfortable. The only thing this movie did right was when it was withdrawn from theaters before going into wide release. So it goes.

TO ELABORATE… (more comments added 5/16/2018):

I warn you all, this is going to hurt…

From the very opening credits, we can spot one fundamental flaw in how director and screenwriter Alan Rudolph interprets Breakfast of Champions. He spews Vonnegut’s drawing from the book over the opening credits willy-nilly, then finishes with Vonnegut’s drawing of an asshole over his own name. Now, those of us who read the book are obligated to chuckle over the little in-joke, but we already have our first problem: this joke only works if you’re read the book—without Vonnegut telling you it’s an asshole, it looks just like an asterisk. So, people who haven’t read the book are already behind. Meanwhile, the rest of the credits give no context to the drawings. There’s no obvious reason Barbara Hershey should get the stork, Omar Epps should get the car, Ken Campbell and Jake Johannsen should get the crazy Napoleon head, etc. So now those of us who have read the book are also scratching our heads trying to solve the context puzzle. This sets us up for the rest of the movie, which will continue to puzzle us.

Next we meet Brice Willis. In the book, his character, Dwayne Hoover, is shown gradually going round the bend; here, our very first introduction is Bruce Willis starting to eat his gun, then backing down. Two more problems…

First: Willis is a great actor and has many fine roles under his belt, but my God, is he ever the worst at portraying somebody who’s crippled and pathetic. You can not possibly buy him in this role for one second. He gives his characteristic smirk he’s been doing since “Moonlighting” just before we see the gun. He doesn’t look sad and miserable and suicidal. He looks like he has no idea what he’s doing. Compare his performance in 12 Monkeys, where he gradually slips into hysteria by the end of the story because he’s a man up against the mind-ripping strain of hopping back and forth through history. Even there, he’s the hero who shoulders the burden and fights through the chaos. He is given a reason there, while here he’s just splatted onto the screen.

Second: Dwayne Hoover, and for that matter most of the cast, is given zero character development beyond a mock TV commercial at this point, and yet we’re apparently coming upon him at the end of his story. We have no reason to care why he’s cracked up. One of the best ways to make your audience stop caring about your main character is to open with him sucking on a gun. Why follow this guy if he’s a short-timer? Again, non-readers coming to the movie have no idea what’s going on, while readers are equally puzzled, because where were the pages and pages of development Vonnegut put into Dwayne Hoover? In the book, Hoover is set up as the epitome of the American dream, so Vonnegut can teach parables about our diseased society. The movie goes, “It’s a crazy person! It’s funny!”

But now he gets interrupted by his maid calling him downstairs for breakfast—“Breakfast of Champions!” she calls out, for no reason whatsoever except to insert the title into the script. Now people who haven’t read the book are thrust firmly into outer space, because the title will be given no more context than that. For some reason, this invitation makes Hoover decide not to kill himself. What the hell, breakfast. So instead he comes downstairs saying, “Great news, people, today’s not the day.” Again: Haven’t read the book? Then you’re left to conclude that Hoover has put his household on notice that he contemplates shooting himself every morning. Have read the book? We’ve skipped past Vonnegut’s acidic sizing up of 20th century American socioeconomics, changed the race of Hoover’s servant (race is important in Vonnegut’s work as civil rights commentary), and skipped over the part where Hoover hasn’t started going crazy yet. And, in the book, when Dwayne is about to slobber on his gun he opts to shoot out the house instead and accomplishes nothing but ruining some decorative household fixtures, then goes out to the driveway to play basketball with his dog, Sparky.

Incidentally, Vonnegut starts with a lot more about Kilgore Trout, because, as Vonnegut’s surrogate, this is firmly Trout’s story. But in the movie, after a complete non-sequitur conversation with Dwayne and Celia, Dwayne gets attacked by a random dog and flees to work in his car. Only then do we get to Kilgore Trout, and that’s all wrong too—even though Albert Finney is at least well-cast and plays Trout with the proper degree of curmudgeon. But again, we get no context for Trout’s character. In the book, Trout is a misunderstood visionary who uses science fiction to insinuate his ideas into the population while stuck publishing in magazines with “wide-open beavers” in the title, yada yada. In the movie, Trout burns his fan letter from Rosewater. In the book, this does not happen; Trout saves the letter to read from time to time, gradually motivating him to accept the invitation as a defiant act of shattering the public’s illusions.

We cannon forward to—haha—-Nick Nolte in a dress. In the book, Harry LaSabre is an old veteran buddy of Dwayne’s who confronts Dwayne about his odd behavior. Dwayne makes a completely offhand remark about clothing, which just happens to hit Harry in a sensitive spot because Harry is a closet transvestite. Well, let’s skip over all that and go right to the last word of that sentence, shall we? In the movie we get Nolte in a dress watching Dwayne Hoover drive by his house, so he rants to his wife that he thinks Dwayne knows that Harry’s a Tootsie. No possible justification is to be found for all these changes from the book. They don’t do anything. But we’re left in a hopeless position of not being able to set aside the novel and take the movie on its own terms, either, because you’re even more lost that way.

Do you readers know how far into the movie we are?

Do you?

We are TEN MINUTES in!!!

TEN!!!

MINUTES!!! Ten of them!

The remaining 100 minutes play exactly like the first ten. There are no thoughts to grasp here. I’m telling you, this is not a movie. This is an exercise where somebody took scissors and cut random bits of text out of a book and pasted them into a script until the page was full. There is zero attempt to interpret a single idea from the book into the film, zero attempt to make a fan movie for Vonnegut readers, zero attempt to make an entertaining experience for non-Vonnegut readers, zero ability at the craft, art, or even mechanics of movie-making.

This is why, if you notice, I’m not merely portraying this as a bad movie. I’m portraying this as a broken movie. The trouble with this movie is that this movie is dead. It is in a non-operational state of existence. A no-op, a 503 server error, a segmentation fault with no exception handling. It is blank. Static. Kkksshshshshsh!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unwatchable… What thrived in the book was Vonnegut’s portrait of post-counterculture America turned into an ironic landscape of happy-face consumerism. Rudolph, in an act of insane folly, seems to think that what matters is the story.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “kris.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

10 thoughts on “CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)”

  1. Watch out, Pete: you don’t want to over-sell it.

    Were there any remarks to be found from the reader who nominated this movie? Sounds weird — but, well, I’ll accept your argument about its status as a “movie”.

    1. kris suggested it, but did not go into detail. “Yeah, i think you need to put in Breakfast of Champions, it’s the movie made based on the Vonnegut book. it’s one of my absolute favs. i think it needs to be on the list.”

  2. You hate it. OK. We get it.
    As to exact reasons WHY you hate it… that would’ve been helpful – and calling Alan Rudolph a ‘butcher’ doesn’t quite cut it. Nice summary of the book, though. Too bad you didn’t follow through regarding the film.

  3. Now the problem is that these capsules have to be kept down to a few hundred words in length, while BoC has problems that require a thesis longer than the novel to explain. First you have to explain the book, then the movie, then why the movie doesn’t work within the content of the book, then why the movie doesn’t work even on its own two feet…

    Like I said, no right answers. You’re all welcome to take your own stab at it, but I assure you , this way lies madness.

  4. Erm, yes. I too am at a loss as to why exactly this movie is supposed to be bad (or why a very bad movie stops being a movie?). Why is it “babbling nonsense”, why is it bad? I get the ultimate point – that it’s incompetent in such a way that any weirdness fails to be interesting, and thus, fails to be weird – but it’s a bit disappointing to find a review on here that reads very similarly to a normal person’s review of a good weird movie.

  5. With respect to Pete Trbovich, I must disagree with his assessment here, especially that BoC is not a movie. I’ve tried to understand where he’s coming from with this assertion, but it ultimately just feels like the place you end up when you hate a movie this much. Of course it’s a movie. To cite this as a reason not to like it or not to include it on the list seems to be a bit of a cop out.

    Comparing this movie to the book is one way of looking at it, but not the only way. This review seems to focus on the relationship to the book. I could care less about whether or not a movie does justice to source material. If it works, it works as a movie, and if it fails, it fails as a movie. I don’t think this review would be at all sympathetic to the movie even if it focused less on the book, but I do think it’s worth noting that, again, this is just one way—and probably not the best way—to evaluate this movie.

    366 Weird Movies continues to be a great resource, even in reviews like this one. Any movie that makes a 366 writer this incensed is one I had to see.

  6. Thanks a lot, peeps. Because of this series of exchanges I had 6+ hours of “Breakfast of Champions” dreams last night. Having neither seen the movie nor read the source material, this has proven to be somewhat disorienting.

    Of course, epic-length though it was, I can only presume Pete T. would have preferred to watch my free-form mash-up over the Alan Rudolph original.

  7. *shrug*

    OK, peeps, I’ve done all I can on this one. Anybody else is welcome to try to retackle this. Reviews *are* out there calling this movie “a mess” of one sort over and over, though, so I’ve got concurring results on my side.

    Whether the truth is that I’m too much of a Vonnegut nerd to have the right perspective, or this movie is just a Gordian knot of Lovecraftian dimensions that will ruin any attempt to review it, that’s for all of you to decide.

    Sometimes there are no right answers…

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