3 items from 1999
"The Story of Us" is a very toned-down, homogenized version of Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives", which examines the institution of marriage after the magic has worn off. But unlike Allen's lacerating comedy, this Rob Reiner film, written by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, lacks an eye for detail and the courage to go to the heart of the matter. "The Story of Us" is all too willing to settle for superficial comedy and pat answers at the expense of real insight.
Despite these shortcomings, stars Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer -- and the memory of Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally ..". -- will help the Castle Rock film enjoy a solid opening weekend that could lead to modest boxoffice success.
Willis and Pfeiffer play a long-married couple who attempt a trial separation while their kids are away at summer camp. Their absence in each other's lives triggers flashbacks to earlier, happier times, but brief re-exposures trigger only more fights and bitter words. Although still in love, the couple seems unable to accommodate each other's personality quirks.
Unfortunately, Zweibel and Nelson's script gets stuck on issues such as Willis forgetting to fill the car's window-washer fluid and his unwillingness to change bathroom toilet paper, without penetrating deeper into the couple's marital ills. What we get is a generic couple having generic arguments over trivial issues.
Some ever-so-brief therapy scenes are taken up with gags about dysfunctional shrinks. And bull sessions with best friends -- Pfeiffer with Rita Wilson and Julie Hagerty and Willis with Reiner and Paul Reiser -- produce only generalized comments about the impossibility of living with the opposite sex.
Neither Reiner nor his writers appear willing to abandon the light approach in order to scrutinize the torture of a trial separation. They never get inside the characters' heads to assess the pain or feel the torment. Who is this "us" in "The Story of Us" anyway? The film leaves no clues.
Nor do the actors find ways to convey this "us." Willis floats through the picture wearing a puzzled expression. Pfeiffer at least gets a couple of meaty scenes to vent her character's anger at her husband. But neither manages to create much in the way of personality with such vaguely written roles.
Nothing seems truly at stake here. With Willis and Pfeiffer as stars, it's a foregone conclusion that things will work out. But when they do, the filmmakers don't earn their happy ending. The couple never achieves a genuine breakthrough in their faltering relationship. Five minutes after the credit crawl, we can easily imagine them falling into the same arguments.
The world the couple inhabits is similarly generic. It's the Southern California seen in countless movies, from malls and swank eateries to high-rise offices and the couple's Craftsman home. But nothing feels lived-in. Locations and art direction are selected more for eye appeal than character revelation.
The only individualistic note is sounded by Eric Clapton, who contributes a tuneful opening song.
THE STORY OF US
Castle Rock Entertainment
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenwriters: Alan Zweibel, Jessie Nelson
Executive producers: Jeffrey Scott, Frank Capra III
Director of photography: Michael Chapman
Production designer: Lilly Kilvert
Music: Eric Clapton, Marc Shaiman
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editors: Robert Leighton, Alan Edward Bell
Kate Jordan: Michelle Pfeiffer
Ben Jordan: Bruce Willis
Rachel: Rita Wilson
Liza: Julie Hagerty
Dave: Paul Reiser
Stan: Rob Reiner
Marty: Tim Matheson
Erin: Colleen Rennison
Josh: Jake Sandvig
Arnie: Red Buttons
Dot: Jayne Meadows
Harry: Tim Poston
Lillian: Betty White
Running time -- 96 minutes
MPAA rating: R
"Breakfast of Champions" is one of those unfortunate what-were-they-thinking films that even the most talented filmmakers can produce. The Alan Rudolph film spins crazily out of control virtually from the first frame, and few viewers are likely to get a purchase on the bizarre dark satire.
Buena Vista has a tremendous challenge in marketing a film that stars Bruce Willis, but nevertheless has all the earmarks of a cult film only a handful will appreciate.
The film derives from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one of America's best contemporary writers, but one whose works invariably defy film adaptation. His stories very much take place on the pages of his books and in the minds of his readers. Filmmakers who attempt to translate literally his playful prose into the stuff of movies -- scenes with actors and dialogue -- will usually miss the essence of the novel.
"Breakfast of Champions" is about a man losing his grip on reality. The suicidal protagonist is Dwayne Hoover (Willis), who runs the biggest car dealership in Midland City. His pill-popping wife Celia (Barbara Hershey) spends her day in front of the TV, switching channels to watch commercials, while his mistress/secretary Francine (Glenne Headly) runs his financial empire.
Dwayne's sales manager Harry (Nick Nolte in the film's only truly funny performance) wears funereal black at work, but is terrified people will learn that at home with his let-it-all-hang-out wife (Vicki Lewis) he adores to don women's clothing.
Meanwhile, in the fallout shelter at his house, Dwayne's son (Lukas Haas) works on his piano act. And Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), an impoverished writer whose works are only published in porn magazines, sets out for Midland City as the guest of honor at its arts festival.
The movie lurches from one frenetic scene to the next without much plot as a guide. So whatever satire of the American hinterland Rudolph hoped to achieve gets lost in this disorienting continuity.
The actors are over the top from their first appearances, leaving them nowhere to go in developing their characters. And the art direction and cinematography favor clutter and movement to the point that the viewer's eye has no clue where to look.
"Breakfast of Champions" contains too many visual calories but is dramatically undernourished.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Hollywood Pictures/Flying Heart Films
Producers: David Blocker, David Willis
Writer-director: Alan Rudolph
Based on the novel by: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Nina Ruscio
Music: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Rudy Dillon
Editor: Suzy Elmiger
Dwayne Hoover: Bruce Willis
Kilgore Trout: Albert Finney
Harry Le Sabre: Nick Nolte
Celia Hoover: Barbara Hershey
Francine Pefko: Glenne Headly
Bunny Hoover: Lukas Haas
Wayne Hoobler: Omar Epps
Fred T. Barry: Buck Henry
Grace Le Sabre: Vicki Lewis
Eliot Rosewater: Ken Campbell
Running time -- 110 minutes
MPAA rating: R
By Patrick Z. McGavin in Berlin
Alan Rudolph's "Breakfast of Champions" is one of the most thoroughly strange, offhanded and improbable movies ever conceived for wide distribution.
It doesn't begin to succeed on all the levels Rudolph intends, but as a work of the imagination, it has something to say about American culture and society and -- just as important -- has the guts, integrity and daring to attempt something utterly different.
Sadly, if the reaction at the Berlin Film Festival is indicative, "Breakfast" is bound for a quick, unceremonious fade from public view.
Rudolph moves from the stylized, dreamlike imagery of his "Choose Me" and "Trouble in Mind" toward complete abstraction in realizing Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s convulsive Orwellian satire.
Published in 1973, Vonnegut's book was about the end of the '60s and the collapse of the counterculture, giving way to the rise of the advertising culture. Rudolph has made one serious error in contemporizing the material: The incessant television ads of the film's hapless protagonist lose a great deal of social context given the overmediated present-day culture. Otherwise, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, reimagining Vonnegut's Midland City as a surreal landscape inhabited by freaks, opportunists and outcasts who pursue their peculiar notions of freedom and liberation.
Visually, through his shrewd use of the close-up and the off-center framing, Rudolph even incorporates many of the funny, absurd drawings Vonnegut used to periodically support his narrative.
Bruce Willis, who financed the movie's postproduction costs and owns the negative, plays Midland City's most powerful businessman, car magnate Dwayne Hoover.
He's given to constant hallucinations and waking nightmares involving his loopy, apparently unbalanced wife (Barbara Hershey); the son (Lukas Haas) who has rejected him; a demanding mistress (Glenne Headly); and most spectacularly, his top salesman Harry Le Sabre (Nick Nolte, as impressive as ever), who is paranoid that Dwayne has discovered his fetish for dressing in women's clothes.
Rudolph adroitly counterpoints these movements against the story of science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney). Trout is summoned by a local benefactor (Buck Henry) to be guest speaker at an arts festival.
Here the two dominant narrative threads play off against each other in generally interesting, dynamic ways. Rudolph loses himself in the impressionistic visuals and free-form images that give the film its peculiar fluency and range. If he has softened the novel's ending, Rudolph has honored its bleakly acid vision.
What's most fascinating about the film is the fearlessness exhibited by Willis and Nolte. They throw themselves into their parts with such abandon that they are able to make this an admirable and compelling work despite its numerous imperfections. Willis and Nolte push themselves -- and the audience -- in exciting and unexpected ways.
Finally, Willis joins select, important company -- that of Orson Welles and John Cassavetes -- in using the money he's earned from his commercial projects to make something far more unusual and lasting.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
Flying Heart Films
An Alan Rudolph film
Credits: Producers: David Blocker, David Willis; Director-screenwriter: Alan Rudolph; Based on the novel by: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; Director of photography: Elliot Davis; Editor: Suzy Elmiger; Production designer: Nina Ruscio; Music: Mark Isham; Songs: Martin Denny;
Cast: Dwayne Hoover: Bruce Willis; Kilgore Trout: Albert Finney; Harry Le Sabre: Nick Nolte; Celia Hoover: Barbara Hershey; Bunny Hoover: Lukas Haas; Wayne Hoobler: Omar Epps; Francine Pefco: Glenne Headly; Fred T. Barry: Buck Henry.
MPAA rating: R
Color/stereo. Running Time -110 minutes.
3 items from 1999
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