Today’s feature is the ill-received adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s lauded novel “Breakfast of Champions,” starring Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte.
“Breakfast of Champions” was written for the screen and directed by Alan Rudolph (“Buffalo Bill and The Indians,” “Afterglow,” “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”), based on the famous and acclaimed surreal novel by Kurt Vonnegut.
The cinematographer for “Breakfast of Champions” was Elliot Davis, who has done shooting work since for films like “Twilight,” “Legally Blonde 2,” “Lords of Dogtown,” and “Finding Graceland.”
The effects team for “Breakfast of Champions” included Chris Wells (“Torque,” “Looper,” “Captain America: The First Avenger”), Robert Stromberg (“Battlefield Earth,” “Fortress”), Richard Ivan Mann (“Spider-Man 3,” “The Happening,” “Tank Girl”), Steven Fagerquist (“From Justin To Kelly,” “The Terminator,” “Van Helsing”), Mark Breakspear (“The Last Airbender,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “American Sniper”), Rob Blue (“The Faculty,” “Small Soldiers,” “Bad Boys II”), Ray Brown (“Class of 1999,” “Ultraviolet”), and Bob Riggs (“Next,” “Green Lantern,” “Rush Hour 3”).
The producers for “Breakfast of Champions” included David Blocker (“Frailty,” “Into The Wild”), W. Mark McNair (“Into The Storm,” “Joy Ride”), and Bruce Willis’s brother David Willis (“Hudson Hawk,” “The Kid”), as well as Willis’s frequent producer and assistant Stephen J. Eads (“The Whole Nine Yards,” “Bandits”).
The editor for “Breakfast of Champions” was Suzy Elmiger, who has also cut films such as “Movie 43” and “Feel The Noise.”
The music for “Breakfast of Champions” was composed by Academy Award nominee Mark Isham, who also provided music for films such as “Next,” “Timecop,” “Point Break,” “The Cooler,” “Quiz Show,” and “A River Runs Through It.”
The cast for “Breakfast of Champions” is actually pretty impressive, headlined by Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte (who had previously starred in another Vonnegut adaptation, “Mother Night”). The accessory cast includes Albert Finney (“Skyfall,” “Erin Brockovich”), Barbara Hershey (“Insidious,” “Falling Down”), Glenne Headly (“ER,” “Dick Tracy”), Lukas Haas (“Brick,” “Inception”), Omar Epps (“House,” “Dracula 2000”), Vicki Lewis (“Mousehunt,” “Godzilla”), Buck Henry (“Catch-22,” “The Graduate”), Owen Wilson (“Anaconda,” “Inherent Vice”), Will Patton (“Gone In 60 Seconds,” “The Postman”), Chip Zien (“Howard The Duck”), Michael Jai White (“Spawn,” “The Dark Knight,” “Black Dynamite”), and Michael Clarke Duncan (“Daredevil,” “The Green Mile”), among others.
The story of “Breakfast of Champions” primarily follows a used car dealer who is rapidly descending into madness, though segments also spotlight a struggling eccentric author and an assortment of other local characters in a Midwestern town.
An intriguing number of cast members in “Breakfast of Champions” also appeared in the previous year’s blockbuster, “Armageddon,” including Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Patton, Owen Wilson, Ken Hudson Campbell, and Shawnee Smith.
“Breakfast of Champions” had a production budget of $12 million, and didn’t even gross 500,000 in a very limited theatrical release, making it a massive bomb. It was also incredibly poorly received, earning a 4.6 rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% (audience) and 26% (critics). Kurt Vonnegut himself has apparently claimed that the film is “painful to watch.”
The Entertainment Weekly review of “Breakfast of Champions” written by Owen Gleiberman included the following criticism of the film:
What thrived in the book was Vonnegut’s portrait of post-counterculture America turned into an ironic landscape of happy-face consumerism. Rudolph, in an act of insane folly, seems to think that what matters is the story. The result could almost be his version of a Robert Altman disaster — a movie so unhinged it practically dares you not to hate it.
Admittedly, “Breakfast of Champions” is clearly a difficult source material to adapt to the screen. However, Gleiberman hits on one of the key problems with this attempt: the story of the novel doesn’t matter nearly as much as the atmosphere and the tone, which are the elements that the film somehow totally manages to miss. The odd charm and screwball cynicism didn’t make the jump from the page to the screen here, even if the gist of the story did.
To the credit of the filmmakers, there was at least an attempt to integrate the distinctive illustrations from the book into the film, but they just didn’t work in the same way. A lot of the humor of the novel comes in the form of the various descriptions of the sketches, which never comes through in the movie. The story and characters written by Vonnegut often require a lot of internal dialogue, which can be difficult to pull off on screen. Of the Vonnegut film adaptations I have seen, “Mother Night” does it the best, but it also doesn’t have to deal with the burden of being comedic.
I’ve noticed that some people have praised Bruce Willis’s performance in the film, but I personally feel like he was strangely cast and not quite suited for the dramatic elements of the role. Throughout the movie, he seems to struggle in portraying the emotional spectrum and sporadic instability of his character. On the other hand, I thought Nick Nolte was fantastic in his seemingly limited screen time in the film, and was the only thing keeping me at all invested in the movie.
Some have claimed that “Breakfast of Champions,” for all of its flaws, is a striking visual movie. Personally, I couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. The movie just looks bad, particularly when there are any surreal special effects called for. They would have been better off not using effects at all than having ones that make the movie look cheap, which is what the case ultimately was here.
Overall, “Breakfast of Champions” fails to capture the surreal comedy of the source material, and winds up being a pretty dull watch. There are some decent performances, but the total sum product is nonsense in the worst possible way. I don’t recommend giving it a watch unless you are a die hard Vonnegut fan, or are just deathly curious.