The war ends. American troops capture Howard, beat him up, and force him to confront the grisly evidence of Nazi atrocities. Frank's reluctant intervention secures Howard's release (and probably saves his life). Hitler's Rush Limbaugh flees to New York where, with counterfeit documents supplied by Frank, Campbell loses himself among the masses. Fifteen years go by. But "the last free American" cannot escape the demons of his past.

The filmmakers get carried away with demonstrating the depths of Howard's melancholy by having him maintain a shrine to Helga's memory and periodically give maudlin little candlelight-and-wine toasts to her photograph. Exacerbating his heartache is Howard's guilt for betraying their covenant. That guilt is further compounded by Howard's gnawing fear that Helga's father-in-law may have been right, that Howard's deception may have done more to aide the Nazi cause than to hurt it. Howard becomes, in the words of a neighbor and newfound confidant named Kraft (Alan Arkin), a member of the brotherhood of the walking wounded. "You get your membership card when you lose the one thing in life that ever had any meaning for you," Kraft explains.

Howard's funk deepens. His concern for his own safety lapses. He starts using his real name again. No one seems to care. But Vonnegut's fondness for absurdist humor asserts itself with the appearance of a comically pathetic band of white supremacists -- the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution -- who "out" Howard in their newsletter and shortly thereafter show up on his doorstep to hero-worship in person. Lovesick, guilt-ridden Howard becomes the object of an intense manhunt. Israeli, Russian, and American agents follow his trail, while the band of hapless neo-Nazis attempts to shield Howard. Bad guys unwittingly do a good deed.

Only one man -- Frank -- has the power to set the record straight and exonerate Howard in the eyes of his adversaries. But can even Frank rescue Howard Campbell from his own troubled conscience?

Despite Kurt Vonnegut's enormous popularity with baby boomers (he achieved cult status in the Sixties and is still widely read), few filmmakers have attempted to adapt the author's stories to the big screen. The very characteristics that make Vonnegut's novels such a delightful read -- the elliptical interior monologues, the deliberate subversion of narrative conventions, the anarchic spirit and irrepressible imagination, the fudging of the line between sanity and insanity, the portrayal of all human endeavors as part of some vast cosmic joke -- make his work an ill fit for the linear storytelling structure expected of motion pictures. So even if Mother Night had reeked, producer-director Keith Gordon (director of the first-rate but overlooked A Midnight Clear) and producer-screenwriter Robert Weide would deserve points just for having the cojones to tackle the author's work.

The film doesn't stink, of course. It succeeds handsomely on several levels. Mother Night is by turns a love story, a thriller, a mystery, a black comedy (although it could have used more gallows humor and less melodrama), and thought-provoking entertainment. Like 1972's Slaughterhouse Five -- the only previous Vonnegut film adaption that matters -- Mother Night's many contrasting elements bring one another into sharper relief. Campbell's involvement with the delusional and cartoonishly funny neo-Nazis sets up a chilling moment when they screen a piece of old newsreel footage of Campbell at his foaming, racist worst. The former secret agent can scarcely believe his own viciousness. The shock of recognition penetrates Campbell's defenses, overwhelms his rationalizations, and emphatically underscores his father-in-law's damning assertion of Howard's complicity in the Third Reich's crimes against humanity. It's a brief but riveting sequence, at once crystallized and made almost surreal by the buffoonery that precedes it.

And so it goes. You laugh, you cry. One minute Mother Night embraces romanticism, the next minute it turns cynical. Good intentions yield disastrous results. The hero becomes the villain; the friend turns out to be the enemy; the attempt at heroism destroys the would-be hero's life. It's a wacky, tragic, perplexing conundrum that would drive even a hard-bitten Casablanca nightclub owner -- to say nothing of a sensitive playwright like Howard Campbell -- nuts with shaky truths, shifting moral ground, and backfiring ideals. It is, in other words, quintessential Vonnegut.

Mother Night.
Written by Robert B. Weide; directed by Keith Gordon; with Nick Nolte, John Goodman, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and Kirsten Dunst.

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