Breakfast of Champions
In 1981 Kurt Vonnegut rated his own novels in his book Palm Sunday. He gave this book a C. I’d rate it lower. The crazy thing is that it came right after one of his very best books, Slaughterhouse-Five. (I can’t resist throwing in the full title here: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.) It marked the start of a down period for Vonnegut, at least in my estimation, when his books became so fatalistic and morose that I could barely read them. It wasn’t until his last novel, Timequake, that he got his mojo back. I have long suspected that after purging himself of his nightmare experiences in the firebombing of Dresden, he really didn’t have much left to say. He even admits this in the book Breakfast of Champions, that he was just throwing in bits and pieces of himself that he needed to get rid of.
It is possible to make a good movie from a Vonnegut novel, as in the classic Slaughterhouse-Five, and the obscure Mother Night (his best book, in my opinion). But I think this one was doomed from the start. For one thing, the book is not very good. A very bad start right there. For another, the writer/director, Alan Rudolph, doesn’t seem to have had any idea of what to do with the material. He has the actors play it as some sort of goony farce, with a lot of camera tricks, and there’s not really much very funny in it. It’s the story of a man (Bruce Willis) who is going crazy. The telling of the story in the book was in the deliberately fractured style Vonnegut had adopted by this time, and is embellished with artwork by the author, including a drawing of his asshole. (His term, not mine. To see it, make a plus sign on a piece of paper, then bisect all the angles. Viola, it’s Kurt’s asshole!) It’s gloomy, it’s tired out, it’s written by a man who will attempt suicide in ten years, but thankfully survive for another fourteen. Who thought this would make a good movie? It’s got a great cast, mostly misused, as in the embarrassing sight of Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden transvestite. Many of Vonnegut’s recurring characters appear, most of them very badly used, such as Eliot Rosewater and, worst of all, Albert Finney as Kilgore Trout. Just awful. Kilgore Trout was angry, disillusioned, depressed, but never the buffoon he appears to be here.