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Breakfast of Champions (VHS)

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Theatrical Release: 1999 / Director: Alan Rudolph / Actors: Bruce Willis, Albert Finney ... / VHS Tape released 01 October, 2001 at Warner

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      14.11.2005 12:25
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      A complete failure to adapt a great book for the cinema

      Oh dear…. ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut is a classic book, a symbol of American counterculture in the 70’s…maybe a little dated now but it’s insights, satire and surreal tone still manages to bring a smile to my face, when I periodically go back to it. Therefore it is very sad to see this awful misconceived adaptation and to reflect on the missed opportunity and wasted talent on view.

      THE STORY

      The film like the book deals with the slowly disintegrating life of Dwayne Hoover a successful small time car dealer in the fictitious small mid American city of Midland City. The very name conjures images of white conservative middle, class, and middle income, Middle America. Neat streets, white picket fences in the suburbs and ordered lives. Dwayne is respected and trusted in the community. However things are never what they seem. Dwayne is close to a nervous breakdown and is close to suicide, His wife Celia is too busy popping pills to notice, Harry Le Sabre his friend and business partner is a cross dresser. Reality is becoming increasingly confused for Dwayne.

      Enter Kilgore Trout a failed and bitter Sci-fi writer whose only publications so far have been in the pages of Porno magazines. The two form an unlikely alliance and decide that their salvation might lay in the first ever Midland City Festival of Art; this leads to unexpected conclusion for them and the citizens of Midland City.

      CAST, PERFORMANCES AND OPINION

      Bruce Willis .... Dwayne Hoover
      Albert Finney .... Kilgore Trout
      Nick Nolte .... Harry Le Sabre
      Barbara Hershey .... Celia Hoover
      Glenne Headly .... Francine Pefko
      Lukas Haas .... George 'Bunny' Hoover

      How can I even begin to tell you how bad this film is…? Maybe the best place to start is to tell you why the book by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was such a delight. Normally I don't believe in comparing a book to a film adaptation too closely since they should be judged on their own merits but in this case I feel that the makers of the film tried so hard (and failed)to capture the sense and purpose of the book that a direct comparison in large part justified.

      The story in both the book and the woeful adaptation is a scathing if rather obvious satire of modern America, in this case the modern America would be a 70’s version of Middle America which one suspect hasn’t changes much in the last thirty years. Dwayne is a symbol of this society on the outside successful rich at ease with itself, looking to the future, forgetting the past, but really in terminal decline obsessed with status, money and power. Scratch beneath the surface and you quickly reach a state of despair. Despite the nature of the subject matter the terminal decline of an ordinary man the book manages bring out through the ludicrous nature of the people and events plenty of laugh out loud humour. The key to the book success is the very thing that the film lacks, Kurt Vonnegut's presence.

      The book is narrated by Vonnegut and every page in infuse with his idiosyncratic commentary whether it is in the form of the childlike felt-tip sketches illustrating the events or the sharp witted acerbic prose. Vonnegut’s brilliant rants against consumerism, conservatism (and any other ism you can thing of) are a delight. He manages to bring out the insecurity and absurdness of modern society. The film lacks this and suffers for it. The events and characters in themselves whilst pathetic and grotesque fail to provide any humour.

      Willis not a newcomer to comedic roles and a better actor than many would admit is in my opinion totally miscast. He is not believable as the boring pillar of Middle American society and neither is he convincing as someone close to total breakdown. The brilliant Albert Finney gives a rather strange halting performance as the surreal Kilgore Trout and the rest of the cast including such fine actors as Nick Nolte and Barbara Hershey also flounder in this soulless adaptation.

      But the blame cannot lie with the actors a fine and distinguished line up it is… it must be down to the director and scriptwriter who made such mess of this project. The guilty will be named and shamed… Alan Rudolph is responsible and guilty on both counts and write and director! Rather surprising from the man responsible for the very witty 1994 film ‘Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle’.

      The original book is a strange beast, quirky, funny almost surreal in parts (who can forget the tap dancing aliens that communicate through farting) the film tries to be all these but comes across as trying very hard to be all those things without actually managing to be any of them. Do you remember the character in the ‘Fast Show’, the office bore that goes around playing practical jokes and saying ‘I’m mad me!’ well if this film were a person that’s the kind of person it would be.

      Of course a failure to live up to a classic book shouldn’t necessarily mean that the film is bad, it should be judged on it’s own merits however in trying so hard to be like the book this film has totally failed to even succeed as a film. It feels really flat for a comedy and at moments it becomes embarrassing so see the ineptitude on screen.

      Could such a strangely structure book as breakfast of champions be adapted successfully in any case? I’m not sure but I think if you are going to attempt this then the best approach is either to make a standalone film using the essence of the book for inspiration or to reproduce it faithfully keeping the authors voice and faithfully sticking to the story. The way you shouldn’t approach it is by doing what Alan Rudolph has done, sticking mainly to the characters and events but ripping out the heart and soul of the story. Its ultimate failing is that anyone coming to this film not having read the book will be thoroughly confused but anyone watching knowing the book will be thoroughly disappointed with the results. Using Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite expression in the book this film is Diddley-Squat!

      The availability of this film is very restricted in the UK. Maybe because of its poor reviews on US release, it is only easily available on VHS in this country (although the region 1 DVD can be found) and can be picked up from Amazon for less than £5.

      Why watch it? Well if you are a fan of the book, which is a cult classic then there can be a morbid fascination in watching a screen adaptation even if it’s such a bad one! Sometimes you just can’t help yourself, but be warned…

      © Mauri 2005

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