Once in a blue moon, a movie comes along that’s really hard to peg. Sometimes, that’s because the movie seems to be doing more than one thing at the same time. Independent filmmaker Alan Rudolph’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, based on a famous novel by Kurt Vonnegut (SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE), is just such a movie.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is the story of one very troubled, suicidal man’s search for meaning and truth. It is also a ferocious and at times obnoxious, subversive and insightful satire of American middle-class values, American consumerism and American TV advertising that becomes in the end (believe it or not) a validation of traditional family values. Finally, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is also a religious allegory and a spiritual fable with a redemptive, emotional and provocative ending.
In the movie, Bruce Willis plays Dwayne Hoover, the suicidal owner of a used car lot in Midland City, U.S.A. Hoover is going through an emotional breakdown. His personality is fragmenting into a million pieces, and he can barely keep up appearances during his high-energy TV commercials. Those commercial appear on TV sets in many places throughout the story. Unable to talk with anyone about his troubles, Hoover is alienated from his wife and his son, both of whom have retreated in their own little worlds. They are apparently trying to get away from Hoover’s superficial, schizoid, salesman’s persona. That persona has become secretly suicidal. Meanwhile, however, Hoover’s sales manager, Harry, played by Nick Nolte, and his secretary, who also is his mistress, have noticed that Hoover has not been himself lately. Hoover’s breakdown is finally coming to the surface.
Stepping into Hoover’s world is Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who usually only gets published in pornography magazines in order to give the magazines an air of respectability. (Trout is real-life writer Kurt Vonnegut’s alter ego.) Trout, however, has an uncanny knack for developing provocative stories portraying the human condition. Midland City’s first fine arts festival has invited Trout to be guest of honor because two of the town’s most important benefactors think Trout is a great writer. The festival actually sends Trout $1,000, and Trout rightly wonders sarcastically, “Who in their right mind would give me a thousand dollars?” As Trout finally arrives in town, Hoover decides, in desperation, that the scruffy writer may have the answers for which Hoover is searching. When they finally meet, Hoover and Trout’s worlds collide, changing the lives of both men for the better.
The humor and satire in BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS often grows out of the characters and the actors’ performances rather than the story, which is unusual. Bruce Willis as Hoover, Albert Finney as Kilgore Trout, Glenne Headly as Hoover’s secretary and mistress, Omar Epps as a crazy petty thief who trusts Hoover more than anyone else alive (other than God), and especially Nick Nolte as the nervous, obsequious Harry, give outstanding performances. This is no surprise coming from director and screenwriter Alan Rudolph, who is known for getting good performances. To get so many excellent performances, however, in a wild movie like BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is an even bigger accomplishment. That Rudolph is able to provide some cohesiveness to so many characters is also amazing. Finney’s character should be singled out because, though quirky, his character is sympathetic and likable. He helps focus the movie’s moral and spiritual journey, especially toward the end.
The most positive thing about BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is its redemptive ending. Throughout the story, Hoover is looking for meaning, truth and purpose. “I’m just looking for somebody to steer me in the right direction,” he cries in desperation in one scene. Although he goes through trials and tribulations, and does some sinful and misguided things along the way, Hoover finally finds what he’s looking for in his relationship with his wife and his son, with whom he reconciles while asking for forgiveness. Hoover’s repentance comes after Trout tells him, “Until you’re dead, it’s all life, so make the best of it.”
It is interesting to note that one of Hoover’s investments, a housing development, has turned sour because the authorities have discovered that it’s built on a toxic waste dump. This pollution, as well as references to other pollution in the movie, including the pollution of phony, false TV advertising, symbolizes the sinfulness of man. Thus, whether consciously or not, the movie seems to be saying that sin is at the root of Hoover’s troubles and confusion, as well as the troubles and confusion of the whole world.
The character of Kilgore Trout also adds to the redemptive character of the movie’s ending. Throughout the film, Trout is searching for paradise, which he envisions as a tropical island where a young girl and a young boy frolic. After helping Hoover find his way again amidst the sinful chaos of his life, Trout gets a message from God that he can now enter that paradise he imagines. In a surrealistic scene, Trout steps into his tropical paradise, where he meets the little girl. He asks the little girl to make him young again, and he turns into the little boy. Could this be a reference to Jesus Christ’s comment that we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a little child? Perhaps, or perhaps it is more New Age musing. Either way, good works will not get Trout, or anyone else, into Heaven, only faith in Jesus Christ will and that faith is a gift from God.
Despite these positive qualities, there are some strong negatives to BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS that irreparably damage the movie’s moral and spiritual acceptability. For instance, there is some very sleazy sexual content in the film. Hoover’s sales manager, Harry, for example, likes to dress in women’s clothing. In an early scene that also includes implied oral sex, the movie shows Harry in a dress while he’s at home with his wife. Harry is afraid that Hoover is acting strangely with him because Hoover has discovered Harry’s prurient cross-dressing penchant. Of course, Hoover himself is no goody two shoes. Thus, in one scene, the movie depicts Hoover fornicating with his mistress while she’s dressed in her underwear in a motel. The fact that Hoover reconciles with his wife, and Harry eventually is taken to a mental ward cannot redeem the inclusion of such scenes.
Another extreme negative in BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is the fact that the movie actually depicts Hoover attempting to commit suicide two or three times with a revolver. Although this movie is rated R, there’s still a good chance that some teenagers or children may see it. Putting such disturbing scenes in a movie is really irresponsible. For that and its other objectionable content, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is morally and spiritually unacceptable, even though its positive qualities save it from being a completely evil movie.
Moral worldview of a suicidal man's search for meaning & truth, with redemptive elements, including philosophical references to God, a scene of forgiveness & reconciliation, & a metaphor for what Heaven may be like, plus some mild environmentalism; 18 obscenities & 16 profanities plus some sexual references; disturbing scenes of attempted suicide, man fights off bulldog, man shoots TV, & drunken man goes berserk in bar after deciding that people are not really human but eventually is grabbed by another man who stops him by; implied oral sex, depicted fornication, wife licks husband's chest area, drawings of Hindu sex acts, & man shown dressing in women's clothes; upper male nudity & men & women in underwear; alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking & several people take too many pills; talent agent seems to have homosexual desires; and, adultery, treating others badly, fraud, attempted suicide, woman watches too much TV, speeding, & cross-dressing lands man in mental ward.