A mainstream version of Jennifer Montgomery’s controversial Art for Teachers of Children, Guinevere is notable as a showcase for Sarah Polley, a mercurial young actor with a wide, seemingly effortless range. Nothing could be further from the steely, working-class survivor that she played in Go than Harper Sloane, the shy, sheltered daughter of a wealthy, rather despicable San Francisco family.
Harper has just been accepted to Harvard Law School when she meets Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), a nearly burnt-out photographer who’s 30 years her senior. Connie sees a kindred outsider spirit in Harper, and within days of her first visit to his dilapidated studio, he’s convinced her to put her plans on hold and move in. Although sex plays a part in their relationship, their attraction has more to do with their belief in each other’s fantasies. Harper sees Connie as an uncompromising great artist and the teacher who can change her life; Connie makes Harper believe that she also has the potential to express a unique vision as well. By the time Harper discovers that she’s only the latest in a long line of Connie’s “Guineveres,” she’s too involved to cut herself free.
Writer-director Audrey Wells doesn’t take a moral position against this classic May-December relationship, which is what’s admirable about the film. Although Connie exploits the youth of his Guineveres, he suffers more than they do because he’s the one left behind when his nurturing pays off. Rea is convincing as a romantic, alcoholic wreck, but he lacks the narcissistic blinders that would allow Connie to repeat the same relationship with a half dozen women.
As a director, Wells is too conventional for her own material, and much of the time the film plays like soap opera. Except for Polley and Rea, the performances are heavy-handed. Still, I was willing to cut Guinevere some slack until the excruciating final scene—a rip-off of All That Jazz and twice as maudlin.
Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s surreal comic novel about the routine madness of American life, also suffers from a saccharine ending, but that’s hardly its worst problem. Another middle-aged male-crisis opus, it begins on a note of total migraine-inducing hysteria, which continues unabated throughout.
Bruce Willis plays Dwayne Hoover, owner of a used-car franchise, whose TV commercials have made him the biggest celebrity and most trusted man in his prefab, strip-malled midwestern town. In wire-framed glasses and a plastered-down rug that dips discreetly onto his forehead, Willis looks exactly like Buck Henry, which would be weird enough were Henry not also in the film (looking, of course, nothing like himself because he’s 25 years older than he was when he became an American comic icon).
How we’ve substituted icons and tacky television commercials for real life is part of the horror that Breakfast of Champions tries to deal with. I guess it’s also part of what drives poor Dwayne, his pill-popping wife (Barbara Hershey) and his sales manager (Nick Nolte) over the edge, although the film is too frantic to allow one enough mental space to make connections. Like all the actors, Nolte is too one-note, but it’s a hoot to see him in red-lace undies—the sales manager is a closeted cross-dresser who can’t resist dropping his trousers for the omnipresent television cameras. Albert Finney has the most thankless role and gives the most eye-rolling, jaw-waggling performance as an unrecognized great writer who hitchhikes cross-country and wades through the bubbling blue industrial-waste swamp behind Dwayne’s car lot to deliver the message that saves the day. And high time he got there, I thought, fleeing the theater, feeling as if I’d been beaten head to toe with a bag full of tennis balls.