A mess may be too easy a classification for Alan Rudolph's film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s celebrated novel, Breakfast of Champions, since a mess is just what the film seems to be trying to portray. But a mess is a mess nonetheless, and the cheerfully free-wheeling Champions goes down as yet another unadaptable novel that hasn't daunted the ambition of an independent-minded, idiosyncratic filmmaker. The last such work that comes to mind is Terry Gilliam's attempt to film Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and while Gilliam lost Thompson's political message in the jumble, he also did a most respectable job at thoroughly capturing a very particular state of mind. Rudolph has lost Vonnegut's politics, too, but he faces an additional, more forbidding task-he has to capture a society that has completely lost its mind.

Insanity on the page and insanity on the screen are two very different things-when you're faced with insanity played out in performance, you're denied the access to the thought processes which ground the insanity in some sort of logic, even if it's a paradoxically irrational logic. With no means for the audience to get a footing on an authorial perspective, the out-of-control outrageousness on the screen loses any chance at meaning. The world of Breakfast of Champions, that of fictional Midland City, USA, is suburbia in warped, out-of-control hyperdrive, ruled over by the celebrity of one Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis), car salesman extraordinaire. The jittery Hoover goes every few hours contemplating the swallowing of a bullet, yet he's the most centered man of his universe. Among the large cast of crazies surrounding him are his equally suicidal wife Celia (Barbara Hershey), who uses the TV as a strobe light; his dealership underling, best friend and closet transvestite Harry LeSabre (Nick Nolte); and Hoover's son Bunny (Lukas Haas), whose highest desire is to be a cheap lounge act and to live like a rabbit. And then there's Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), a muttering, hallucinating hermit of a lionized author who writes only in the attempt to empty his overloaded head.

But it's Breakfast of Champions that's on overload. Recognizable human behavior has been banished from Midland City-this cast of characters (and Champions goes to great lengths to make sure every last one of them is a character) is little more than a collection of quirks. Rudolph, a mannered director even without filming such already mannered material, relishes the quirkiness and runs with it, filling the screen with visual gimmicks and chopping the film up into random, meaningless bits. With nothing substantive said about any of them, Breakfast of Champions fitfully glances at the issues of consumerism, suburban conformity, celebrity, sexual captivity, image overload, the search for meaning through art, and, as the title indicates, the simple act of getting through the day. With so many satirical targets and such a mad, busy stage, getting through this shrill, tiresome film is another story altogether.

--David Luty