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The Boston Phoenix Hold the Martini

Alan Rudolph's delectable 'Breakfast'

By Jeffrey Gantz

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  I first saw Alan Rudolph's over-the-top Kurt Vonnegut adaptation last February at the Berlin Film Festival. I thought it was hilarious. Nobody else did: in the Tagesspiegel newspaper's critics' poll of movies in competition, it finished 25th out of 25, with a rating (on a 1-to-5 scale) of 4.7. Since then the film has continued to bomb with festival viewers, and its opening has been repeatedly postponed. But now that I've seen it a second time, I'm sticking by my guns. Hold the martini -- I'll take Breakfast of Champions.

It's a typical day on the lot at Dwayne Hoover's Exit 11 Motor Village. Salesman Harry Le Sabre (Nick Nolte) is hoping no one suspects he's wearing ladies' lingerie under his mortician-black suit. Receptionist Francine Pefko (Glenne Headly) is hoping no one suspects she's having an affair with Dwayne (Bruce Willis). The salesmen are probably hoping no one asks why they have a giant model elephant on the lot during Hawaiian Week. The only thing missing is the desperate Dwayne, who's at home in his bedroom with a gun in his mouth, trying to find a quiet moment in which to pull the trigger. No such luck, so he goes downstairs to find an all-American bacon-and-egg breakfast on the table and his pill-popping wife, Celia (Barbara Hershey), parked in front of a giant TV screen that seems to show nothing but commercials, for "Relax" ("Say goodbye to Blue Monday") and, of course, the ubiquitous Dwayne (brandishing a trident and promising "a whale of a deal"). After losing his topcoat to his English bulldog Nippy, who hates him, Dwayne drives to the lot through a Midland City that's one big "You can trust Dwayne Hoover" billboard after another. So what if he's losing his mind?

Help of a sort is on the way: millionaire Elliot Rosewater (Ken Campbell) has invited third-rate science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), whom he believes to be the world's greatest novelist, to Midland City's first Arts Festival, even though Kilgore's work appears primarily in magazines with titles like Whips & Garters. (Elliot's Rosewater Foundation seems equal parts cathedral and porno shop.) As Kilgore hitches his way from upstate New York (having got rolled in an alley and lost the $1000 Elliot sent him), we're initiated into his Now It Can Be Told, which explains that the universe is a Divine Experiment populated by robots and one thinking species (us?). Dwayne has questions; Kilgore has answers. Welcome to the meltdown.

Kurt Vonnegut's novel is a clunky, preachy, one-dimensional diatribe; Rudolph has turned it into a big, black comic strip of a movie, and his outstanding cast -- doubtless signed on at markdown prices -- give their cardboard characters depth and ambiguity. Robert Altman's influence is evident in both the stylization (think of M*A*S*H, or Nashville) and the dizzying whirl of developments -- there's also the wide-eyed Wayne Hoobler (Omar Epps), a petty crook just out of jail who sees Dwayne's Motor Village as nirvana and camps out in the auto lot in the hope of becoming a salesman, and Dwayne and Celia's son Bunny (Lukas Haas), who favors bunny slippers and has a lounge act. In the novel, Celia has already committed suicide; Rudolph adds to the tension in Dwayne's life by resurrecting her. Throughout, along with variations on Martin Denny's 1959 instrumental classic "Quiet Village," strains of "Stranger in Paradise" flit by, suggesting that this world, which seems as toxic-waste-polluted as Dwayne's Sugar Creek real-estate venture, could be redeemed if we only knew how to look at it.

What's so unacceptable about Breakfast of Champions? Maybe the scathing satire -- Rudolph is aiming his heavy artillery not just between the eyes of American consumerism but at the assumptions of ordinary movies, and at the comic-strip way most of us live our lives. Yet he avoids the self-righteousness of Vonnegut's novel, replacing it with sly humor (Sugar Creek is also the name of Rudolph's production company) and unsentimental compassion. He's not making fun of his characters: Dwayne's "Who am I" anguish is painful to watch; Harry's "He knows about my underwear" paranoia is touching; both the drug-addled Celia and the strictly business Francine show genuine affection for Dwayne. And if the film's answers seem too easy, well, that's the point. The "solution" that a grumpy, wry Kilgore gives Dwayne -- "It's all life, so make the most of it" -- won't magically put his family back together (the blissfully vacant smiles on the faces of Celia and Bunny as the cops haul Dwayne away attest as much). A red-lingeried Harry, having "come out," winds up on the run from a pair of white-coated asylum attendants, and as for the paradise that Kilgore glimpses in Lewis Carroll mirrors and into which he ultimately disappears, it may be nothing more than his poetic imagination. Caustic but not cynical (maybe that's the problem?), Rudolph realizes there's no instant cure for Blue Mondays. As Kilgore explains to Dwayne, "If we knew the answer, there'd be no more questions."

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