Early in Sideways, when Thomas Haden Church's future in-laws explain to failed novelist Paul Giamatti that they can't see why anyone would write novels, let alone read them, given how many fantabulous true stories there are out in this big crazy world, I laughed but I also identified far too closely with that philistine mindset than I'd like to admit. For neither the first nor the last time, I felt implicated by my own derisive laughter. For while I am a promiscuous and undiscriminating reader, my literary diet is anything but balanced. I probably read 99 non-fiction books to every novel.
I am not proud of this fact. It is one of many things that fill me with shame and self-loathing on a daily basis. So I understandably felt left out in the great outpouring of grief that accompanied Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s passing not long ago. Everybody else was getting in on the red-hot mourning action except me, dammit! It just wasn't fair. Each generation picks its heroes. That's why Robert Altman's death inspired a tidal wave of grief and Ingmar Bergman's passing a muted sigh. Altman spoke to me and other members of my generation like few other filmmakers before or since.
Altman had an eternally contemporary sensibility, hip and wry and smartass and cynical, but with a sneaky, deceptive emotional depth. In that respect, he belongs as much to the present and the future as to the past. The same goes for Vonnegut. Reading Breakfast Of Champions after having read so many writers inspired by Vonnegut is like listening to James Brown or George Clinton after being inundated for decades with hip-hop songs sampling their seminal work. It's a trip back to the source, the essence, the fountainhead, the primal core from which thousands of acolytes drew strength and inspiration.
Before reading Breakfast Of Champions on a sleepless 17-hour train ride to Washington D.C. this Thanksgiving, I hadn't read any Vonnegut since devouring Slaughterhouse 5 as a surly 13-year-old. Vonnegut is one of those rare writers capable of profoundly altering the way readers perceive the world. Don DeLillo is another: after reading White Noise I never saw supermarkets the same way again. I began to see them as glistening pinnacles of Western culture, sacred shrines to the genius of late-period capitalism, not just places to buy toothpaste or laundry detergent.
Vonnegut similarly possessed a genius for making the mundane and forgettable suddenly seem new and ridiculous and perverse, not to mention horrible and cruel. He had an unparalleled gift for exposing the madness and folly of our materialistic world and a deft ear for the white noise of commercials and taglines and ad copy and all the ephemeral nonsense that whispers relentlessly in our collective ear that true, profound eternal happiness is always just a few consumer purchases away.
At the core of Breakfast of Champions is a profound, principled revulsion towards the spiritual emptiness of consumer culture endemic to many of Altman's scathing social satires. So it is poetically apt that Altman wanted to adapt Breakfast Of Champions for the big-screen in the mid-'70s with the great Peter Falk as loco businessperson Dwayne Hoover, the even greater Sterling Hayden as cantankerous sci-fi hack Kilgore Trout, and the altogether crappy and unimpressive Ruth Gordon as the wealthy Eliot Rosewater.
Alas, when Breakfast Of Champions was made into a movie in the late '90s, Altman wasn't involved, despite the film being written and directed by protégé Alan Rudolph. Altman produced many of his good friend and longtime collaborator Rudolph's films from this era, but Breakfast boasted an even more venerated producer with an even stronger reputation for valiantly fighting for Rudolph's artistic vision: Bruce Willis' brother.
Not coincidentally Bruce Willis also stars as a fabulously well-to-do businessman rapidly coming apart at the seams. While the Midwestern backwater of Midland prepares for an arts festival, Willis fights a losing battle to maintain his sanity. Willis is unwittingly on a collision course with Albert Finney's Kilgore Trout (net worth: diddly squat), a struggling writer whose science fiction stories pad out the pages of dirty magazines and pornographic books but has been beckoned to appear at the Midland arts festival at the request of a wealthy benefactor.
Meanwhile back at Willis' car dealership, jittery flunky Nick Nolte worries endlessly that his boss will uncover his secret life as a transvestite while child-like ex-convict Omar Epps longs only to work for a man of Willis' stature. Breakfast is fundamentally concerned with the tragic gulf between the smiling, together face we show to the outside world and the angry, burbling madness roiling just underneath the surface.
It accordingly requires a lead actor touched with a spark of divine insanity. Willis, alas, is far too self-assured and confident to inhabit the role convincingly. When he sticks a gun in his mouth and ponders the vast cosmic void, he's merely following the directions of the script, not responding to bad chemicals in his brain or the demented prerogatives of fate. History has taught us that no matter how many bad guys fire weapons in his direction or how many Seagram's Golden Wine Coolers he's consumed, Willis will inevitably emerge smirking and triumphant. Live Free Or Die Hard took this to ridiculous extremes, positing Willis' wise-cracking everyman as Superman's more capable brother: I'm surprised Willis didn't fly into outer space and climatically reverse the Earth's axis to keep bad guy Timothy Olyphant from ever being born. The alpha-male aggression that makes Willis one of our most bankable action stars also makes him a perverse choice to play a man lurching towards a personal and professional nadir from which he can never fully recover.
In a seedy hotel lounge, Willis encounters Finney and asks for the meaning of life. Finney hands him a book that takes the form of a letter from the Creator of the Universe explaining that everyone in the universe is an automated robot except for the recipient of the letter, who has the glory and the horror of being the only person on Earth capable of free will. This sends Willis on a crazed spree of unprovoked violence.
As it heads into the home stretch, Vonnegut's Breakfast becomes its author's story as much as his characters'. No longer content to watch from the sidelines, Vonnegut, that kindly, sadistic creator of his literary universe, becomes a character in his own novel, spying on the discord at the hotel lounge from behind mirrored glasses. Vonnegut makes his authorial presence felt in a thousand other little ways as well, from autobiographical asides (or faux-autobiographical asides) to his charmingly child-like drawings to the jazz-like use of repetition and recurring themes and motifs.
Rudolph finds a way to integrate Vonnegut's drawings into the film, using them in the opening credits and sneaking them into the background like Easter eggs. The elegantly rumpled and ramshackle Finney is an inspired choice to play Trout, Marc Isham's score does a much better job of balancing comedy and tragedy than the film it accompanies, and Epps indelibly embodies his character's poignantly pathetic dreams. But Rudolph gets just about everything else wrong.
His screenplay takes pointless liberties with Vonnegut's text, eliminating the author's presence entirely and making Willis' dead wife a spectral but apparently alive basket case stumbling about dreamily in a Thorazine haze. Most of all, Rudolph botches the book's tricky tone, a high-wire combination of misanthropic satire, bleak philosophizing, and deep, aching, all-encompassing sadness.
Vonnegut's Breakfast is a tricky proposition. It's a cartoon tragedy, a slapstick meditation on existence and the meaning of life. Without Vonnegut's indelible voice–an ironic, blackly comic howl of despair at an absent and perverse God–it devolves into a crazed cacophony of clattering cartoon caricatures, a headache-inducing parade of All-American grotesques. Vonnegut's corrosive philosophical satire stumbles nobly towards transcendence and grace, attaining a strange cumulative power in its heartbreaking final pages. Rudolph's horrific botch of an adaptation retains only the stumbling.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure