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When I was growing up, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was the closest thing I had to a paternal mentor, the only authoritative voice I consistently trusted. Novel after freakish, scattershot, infinitely humane novel, the man provided tools to identify and cope with the daily horrors of America -- this vast sea of garbage exploited by rotten-hearted men. Vonnegut scrawled clever maps to aid in navigating around storms and past pirates. For these, I am sincerely grateful, and sales indicate that I'm not alone in my appreciation of him.

He's in good company among elder male scribes, of course. Robert Bly is vital. John Irving is wonderful. Gore Vidal is sublime. But within our age and culture, only Vonnegut has routinely blended archetypes, oddballs and wisdom, weaving these elements into works so friendly, funny and unpretentious as to seem like greeting cards from a daft uncle. (Tom Robbins and T.C. Boyle are also good, but they read more like hippie cousins.) For those who have been slumming on Mars or Venus, a Vonnegut novel is at once a huge joke and a poignant plea for humanity, a fine environment for chortling and sorting things out.

Finally, director Alan Rudolph has wrestled to the screen an adaptation of Breakfast of Champions. Long my favorite of Vonnegut's books, I grew up with it at hand. For this reason, when I sat down to view Rudolph's take on the novel -- considered "unfilmable" by studio heads for a quarter of a century -- it was with a mixture of tentative glee and mild nausea. Glee prevailed.

Breakfast of Champions is a cathartic eruption of giggles and a victory for all involved. That this artful movie was made via Hollywood is a testament to the fortitude of its creators. Remember that queasy feeling when hit novels such as The World According to Garp or Interview With the Vampire were brought to the screen? Remember how they ended up being pretty good (Tom Cruise and all)? Here's an adaptation that can rightfully be called brilliant.

The epicenter of this wiggly allegory is fictional (but all too real) Midland City -- part Palm Springs kitsch, part Syracuse ennui, all Middle American Hell. (Twin Falls, Idaho, provided the queasy, prefab locations as well as the movie's wilder climes.) If this is a kingdom, Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis) is its reigning -- though utterly absurd -- monarch, a Pontiac dealer who owns and operates Dwayne Hoover's Exit 11 Motor Village with all the flair and veiled despair of a vaudeville huckster. He's a self-made local celebrity, recognized by everyone for his campy themed promotions and oft-bellowed mantra, "Ask anybody! You can trust Dwayne Hoover!"

It's Hawaiian Week at the Motor Village throughout the course of the movie, but the tacky trappings of the ersatz celebration are not adequate to conceal the obvious: Dwayne Hoover is going insane. Hoover is willfully silly, and -- unlike William H. Macy's car dealer in Fargo -- not imbued with much darkness. Rather, in the claustrophobic, self-aggrandizing environment of his own creation, Hoover's psyche is on the verge of detonation. Adding to the strain are his TV-zombie wife, Celia (Barbara Hershey), and glammy lounge-lizard son, George (Lukas Haas), who goes by the nickname "Bunny."

People smile a lot in Midland City, but nobody is particularly happy, plagued as they are by delusions and neuroses. Hoover's longtime friend and sales associate Harry LeSabre (Nick Nolte) is a closet cross-dresser; the house he shares with his lithe, voracious wife, Grace (Vicki Lewis), is a dull ranch on the outside and a secret pleasure palace on the inside, festooned with tapestries and thick with incense. ("We're the only people in this town who have any kind of sex life," Grace tells her husband. "You should be proud!") LeSabre is desperately paranoid that his boss is on to his "taboo" lifestyle. Then there's Hoover's earnest secretary, Francine Pefko (Glenne Headly), whose selfless devotion to her boss only exacerbates his dementia. Add in Wayne Hoobler (Omar Epps), a minor-league ex-con who hero-worships soundalike Hoover and crashes the car dealer's "Fairyland," and this world is ready for a shift.

This is a tale of synchronicity and souls impacting upon one another, for en route to destiny is Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), a demented, impoverished writer of science fiction who has been invited to Midland City as an honored guest of the town's first-ever arts festival. Trout manages to find a copy of his old novel Now It Can Be Told in a pornography shop and brings it along for the presentation. But he can't predict the metaphysical impact the book will have on Hoover's life and his own.

Rudolph suffuses his movie with magical realism, making familiar icons surprising and alien concepts relatable. (As an example of both, Trout experiences common mirrors as "leaks," or passages between this universe and the other one.) Cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Nina Ruscio create a super-saturated miasma that overflows the frame. The fever-dream intensity is further complemented by Mark Isham's jazzy score and the ultra-lounge songs of Martin Denny; happily, none of this obstructs the emotionally charged climax. Only temporally does the movie provoke criticism -- the story would make more sense if it were set thirty or forty years ago rather than contemporaneously -- but a little suspension of disbelief clears that right up. The chief disgruntlement is that this film didn't come out before so much of the novel's iconography and sensibility were strip-mined in countless Middle American scrutinies. (That said, if Raising Arizona annoyed you, True Stories bored you, and The Road to Wellville and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues simply befuddled you, chances are slim you'll groove on this.) Still, as a companion piece to the other fine, disparate Vonnegut adaptations (most notably Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night), Breakfast of Champions should easily stand the test of time.

That's a relief, since Vonnegut himself says in his introduction to the experimental teleplay Between Time and Timbuktu that "film is too clankingly real, too permanent, too industrial for is also too fucking expensive to be much fun." This opinion held in check, the author's dedication allows him to appear here in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as the director of one of Dwayne Hoover's tacky commercials. He's fine, of course, and the entire cast is truly stellar. Performances are adventurous and excellent -- there's not a clinker in the batch. Willis has so much intelligent fun with Dwayne Hoover that any and all Die Hards are forgiven. (Set this one beside The Fifth Element and Twelve Monkeys on your video shelf.) Finney gives Trout a cantankerous beauty that would be unimaginable with any other actor, his decades of genius filling out the script's telegraphed tics. Headly is a howl with her chirpy Francine Pefko, and Epps's Hoobler literally screams "FAIRYLAND!" with such abandon that one realizes he's sane inside the collective insanity. Hershey is both cute and spooky, and Haas...well, imagine Bowie at a Wurlitzer.

Bringing it all home is Nolte, always good, never before this preposterously funny. His terrified discomfort (and inevitable release) over cross-dressing are so palpable that one shudders right along with him.

That sums up why Breakfast of Champions works so well: It's hard not to shudder at this glimpse of poisonous artificiality and the erratic things it makes us do. A movie this incisive almost makes me want to cut a little slack for Dad, and for America.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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