Breakfast of Champions (1999)

It's probably no coincidence that of the handful of Kurt Vonnegut movies, several - Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Slapstick - are almost impossible to see. Though Slaughterhouse 5 is acceptable and Mother Night more than, this long-gestating take on the novel which marked the point that Vonnegut himself started to flounder in whimsically bitter repetition is mostly a fumbling failure, though it has good, unnerving moments and a few approximations of mordant wit. A problem is that the material seems crude and obvious: Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis), a car dealer famous in a mid-western city for his raucous commercials, comes to question the materialistic values embodied in all TV ads and goes through a sort of manic nervous breakdown a deal less striking than the one in American Beauty. On a collision course with Dwayne is hack genius s-f pulpster Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), who shambles across America and wades through toxic sludge to be feted at a Midland City arts festival and reveal the nature of the universe to Hoover, though not really. Mixed up are a bunch of lesser caricatures played by terrific actors with a lot of attack but not much bite: a transvestite salesman (Nick Nolte), his sinuous wife (Vicki Lewis), Hoover's dotty wife (Barbara Hershey) and homemaker mistress (Glenne Headly), art patrons Buck Henry and Ken Campbell, Hoover's covert lounge singer son (Lukas Haas), an ex-con who worships Hoover's TV image (Omar Epps).

There's a lot of frantic running-around, very untypical of writer-director Alan Rudolph, and knockabout comedy that doesn't work. Good moments include Hoover showing up at his dealership to find his whole staff celebrating Hawaiian week and wearing grinning masks of his own face and some of Trout's rambling encounters with people who have surprisingly heard of him. It detours into fantasy as Trout escapes into a Maui-like idyll beyond the mirror, and resolves with an amazingly conservative family hug. Probably, they should have done The Sirens of Titan instead.

First published in this form here.

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