February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

God love Bruce Willis. He’s one of the few megastars who continues to throw curveballs — think Pulp Fiction and 12 Monkeys — if only to keep things interesting for himself. And even when the resulting movies stink up the ionosphere — which The Story of Us and Breakfast of Champions surely do — watching Willis dispense with the smirk and stretch his character-actor muscles remains a treat.

Story is director Rob Reiner’s heartfelt diary of a modern marriage, and it’s infuriating — a movie that wants to depict honestly the way couples can torpedo a relationship but that never feels less than glib. Clearly the work of people who should leave the 90210 zip code more often, it reduces real emotion to forced platitudes, and its disastrous “happy” ending offers Michelle Pfeiffer selling out as both an actress and a character. Willis, playing an aging Hollywood Peter Pan, turns in the subtlest, funniest work here — the scene in which he greets his son at camp and busts out sobbing is the film’s only truthfully out-of-control moment. Maybe his own problems have provided unnerving insights. Maybe he’s just acting. Whatever. It works.

Almost nothing works in Breakfast, director Alan Rudolph’s labor-of-love adaptation of the 1973 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel — which is why the movie evokes a weirdly emotional fascination. A broad satire on the hollowness of middle-American culture can’t help but feel dated at this point (no matter if it’s true), and Rudolph ups Vonnegut’s curdled whimsy with such distractions as animation effects and Hawaiian lounge music. But even if Nick Nolte threatens to crowd out the frame as a hopped-up, cross-dressing car salesman, Willis holds his turf as Nolte’s boss, a small-town top dog undergoing a massive mental meltdown. And Bruce’s toupee is even supposed to look fake this time. How’s that for thespian daring? The Story of Us: D+ Breakfast of Champions: C-


Breakfast of Champions 1999 HOLLYWOOD 110 MINUTES RATED R

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