Breakfast with Nuts

Film: Breakfast of Champions
Year: 1999
Director: Alan Rudolph (also writer)

I watched Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions within a few hours of finishing the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel on which it is based. My hope was that an undelayed viewing would help to condense and digest the book’s many thematic and conceptual strands, arcing across the pages like bolts of rainbow lightning, and that, reciprocally, the words fresh in memory would prove the better to enjoy the movie with. This is not a course I would recommend emulating.

Meaning, I would not recommend watching Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions. The adaptation is likely as vividly incomprehensible to Vonnegut virgins as it is disturbingly simplistic to the book’s devotees. Released twenty-six years after the original text, it doesn’t miss the boat so much as set it on fire and salute in the opposite direction.

There is one scene in the movie (half of one, anyway) that I thoroughly appreciated. Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis), a car salesman and small-town celebrity losing his mind to the plasticity of the Modern Age, lies in bed with his wife and tries through his fatigue to explain to her that the family on TV isn’t real. He means to say they’re only actors, faking their nuclear bliss; to us, he says something more. Dwayne’s wife disagrees with him. In the book, this woman has already committed suicide by slurping drain cleaner. In the movie, she is apparently alive, though even more checked-out than her husband, and in at least one scene she appears as a figment of his imagination. Furthermore, the crux of the story rests in Dwayne’s impending, semi-happenstantial encounter with a science fiction novel that tells him he’s the one real person on Earth and all other people are robots, a revelation which pushes the unstable Pontiac peddler over the brink and commences a long-anticipated rampage.

What we find in this earlier bedroom scene, then, is a man who’s certain only of his own humanity lecturing his wife, who may be a hallucination, on the reality of figures in a commercial on television. Briefly, sweetly, Breakfast of Champions reenacts the many-flowered philosophizing and critique that we find in its base material.

In minor forms, the same idea even persists throughout the film. (The picture was excellent somewhere in its conception, I swear.) Notice how often a radio or a TV) is prating on somewhere in Dwayne’s nearabouts. More often than not, it is his own face beaming back at him. Who wouldn’t go loony?

The problem is that the movie never draws a line around Dwayne’s lunacy. It ekes out into everyone and everything, until we can’t distinguish one crazed perspective from another. Vonnegut’s clean, simple descriptions attributed Dwayne’s mental molting to “bad chemicals” in his brain; Rudolph implies it as a precondition to living in his unrelentingly wacked-out world. To be fair, he is basically following the author’s lead: Vonnegut treats Earth and its inexplicable practices with the same rudimentary, scientific prose that he applies to the innumerable fictive extraterrestrial societies conceived by his other protagonist, the prolific but obscure sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout (an alter ego for Vonnegut, played here by Albert Finney with a pointless case of the bat-shit jitters). The estrangement—the sense that our planet is just another foreign and freakish pebble in the sky, whose fate is random and whose inhabitants are ridiculous—delivers most or all of the book’s satire. Rudolph pursues the same effect, to strand us in our own society, by contriving to make it look alien. The approach is boorish and bland and lacking the important counterpoint that the novel’s flat narration supplied. Moreover, the movie altogether chickens out of reviewing the themes of race and social hypocrisy that the book tackled with dry vitriol, and of directing its broad critique of Americans toward anything specific—like, say, American culture and history.

The depiction of Trout is indicative of the movie’s misapprehensions: in the book, though occasionally he walks and talks like a certified asylum bird, the writer is actually relatively stable. Amidst a famine of sincerity and originality, he has found mental sustenance in his art. By writing all but constantly—creating constantly—he remains sane in an insane time. The Trout of the novel rails against the forces that pinch poor Dwayne’s faculties (despite Dwayne being one of them himself); the Trout of the film is, like everyone around him, just nuts.

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