3 items from 1999
There's no question that Sam Shepard writes deluxe roles for actors. His biting dialogue and tormented souls would get any actor's juices flowing.
"Simpatico", the film adaptation of Shepard's play, is no exception: It's a pleasure to watch Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, Sharon Stone and Albert Finney tearing their hair out over their anguished lives.
But the story itself fails to support these performances. After an energetic beginning when desperation suddenly grips the characters, the story slacks off into philosophical mumbo-jumbo about how freedom comes from detaching oneself from the rat race. Whether one buys this or not, too much detachment does not make for good drama.
With this stellar cast and Shepard's name, however, Fine Line should find a niche for "Simpatico" in adult specialty markets.
Making his feature debut, British stage director Matthew Warchus skillfully weaves together threads of past and present. In his and David Nicholls' adaptation of the play, they have added sequences involving the central characters in their younger days. These flashbacks allow the film to show how they became trapped by their mutual pasts rather than leaving it to the dialogue to tell us.
A vaguely threatening phone call from Vince (Nolte), a broken man living an edgy existence in Southern California, to Carter (Bridges), his pal and a millionaire horse breeder in Kentucky, triggers the action.
Carter drops everything -- including the sale of his Triple Crown winner, Simpatico -- to fly to Los Angeles to rescue Vince from his latest scrape. Only Vince isn't in a scrape. Having lured Carter to California, Vince steals his wallet and car and boards a plane to Kentucky. He means to peddle photos from the past that link both men and Rosie Stone) -- once Vince's girlfriend and now Carter's wife -- in a long-ago crime.
For reasons never explained, Vince has after all these years decided to sell these photos to a man the trio once blackmailed, Simms (Finney), a former racing commissioner who now goes by the name of Ames. The photos and other evidence will help Simms exonerate himself from a past scandal.
But at this point, with the makings of a thriller about blackmail and retribution under way, the movie does an abrupt turnabout.
Carter inexplicably stays in California and takes up Vince's slovenly lifestyle in his unkempt house. Simms could care less about exoneration. (This is Shepard's philosophical message, by the way: Simms' ruined career allowed him to detach himself and find true happiness.) Vince visits Rosie -- who tells him to get the hell out of her home -- and just like that, Vince has run out of people who might be willing to pay for their past mistakes.
There's also a subplot about an L.A. supermarket checker and horse racing enthusiast (Catherine Keener), whom Carter sends to Kentucky to bribe Simms. Instead she and Simms become friends, and he invites her to join him at the next Kentucky Derby. That means she's the only one to get anything out of the whole affair.
This feeble drama is well-mounted with superb camera work by John Toll and the glamour of Churchill Downs contrasting nicely with ramshackle Southern California locations.
Fine Line Features
Emotion Pictures and Canal Plus
in association with Kingsgate Film
Producers: Dan Lupovitz, Tim Oberwelland, Jean-Francois Fonlupt
Director: Matthew Warchus
Writers: Matthew Warchus, David Nicholls
Based on the play by: Sam Shepard
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell, Joel Lubin, Greg Shapiro
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Amy Ancona
Music: Stewart Copeland
Costume designer: Karen Patch
Editor: Pascquale Buba
Vince: Nick Nolte
Carter: Jeff Bridges
Rosie: Sharon Stone
Simms: Albert Finney
Cecilia: Catherine Keener
Running time -- 106 minutes
No MPAA rating
"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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