Part "Rashomon"-like roundelay of dubious recollections, part "Boogie Nights" flashback, "Wonderland" recounts, with drug-addled stylishness, events leading to a brutal 1981 mass-murder in the Los Angeles hills made famous by its link to washed-up, strung-out ex-porn legend John Holmes.
Starring the charismatically glazy-eyed and understated Val Kilmer as Holmes and "Blue Crush" cutie Kate Bosworth as Dawn, his newly legal, foolishly co-dependent girlfriend, this film has a big comparison hurdle to overcome -- the riveting "Boogie" was loosely based on Holmes and some of these events. But for the most part it succeeds because sophomore director James Cox (his unreleased "Highway" premiered on video last year) bypasses the self-destructive smack-head's severed sex-trade ties except as they relate to his celebrity among lowlifes who supply him with drugs.
In fact, Holmes is just one of four characters around whom Cox constructs his story from several points of view in single-perspective segments.
After establishing Holmes as a paranoid, psychologically decayed hanger-on in the Wonderland Ave. townhouse where the pipe-beating deaths will occur, the film spends one act at a police station the morning after the murders with biker thug David Lind ("The Practice's" Dylan McDermott, goateed and gruff in a outstanding departure performance), whose girlfriend was one of the victims.
Off the record, he tells his version of events: The murders were retribution for a $1.2 million home-invasion robbery masterminded by Holmes and executed by the Wonderland brood of druggie deviants. When Holmes felt shortchanged by the divvy of loot, he tipped off their victim -- a violent drug and nightclub kingpin named Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian).
Later, when Holmes is in protective custody, we get his own take. He blames the robbery on Lind and his cronies (the superbly psychotic Josh Lucas and Tim Blake Nelson, both playing against type) and says he was forced at gunpoint to take the enraged Nash's henchmen to the Wonderland house but didn't witness the murders.
As the cops try to piece together the real story from these fibs of personal level-headedness, Holmes' long-estranged, pre-porn wife (Lisa Kudrow) is pulled into the fray from her deliberately distancing suburban existence, giving the audience (but not the cops) a version of events taking place just after the murders as she tries to take Dawn under her wing. And through Dawn's eyes we get narrative bookends of John Holmes' desperation and half-stoned gloom.
Using under-cranked cinematography and warped sound to empathize with stoned characters -- and a soundtrack of customary late-'70s-excess anthems (T.Rex's "20th Century Boy," Iggy and the Stooges' "Search and Destroy") -- "Wonderland" is frequently derivative of many other drugged-out independent films. But Cox makes it his own by tapping a unique, cyclical undercurrent that captures the nature of cocaine/heroine highs and lows in the movie's energy patterns. He also culls strong performances from a great cast that also includes Christina Applegate, Janeane Garofalo, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Carrie Fisher in small roles.
It's Kilmer, however, who makes the largest impression, ironically by being uncharacteristically low-key. He illustrates Holmes' low status with the Wonderland crowd by the fact that he barely registers in some scenes. Looking unhealthily ruddy and shaggy, he latches on to a knowing self-delusion in the demoralized ex-porn king that often abandons him, leaving sadness and crushing regret far more often than he'd like. His very best scene is one of remorseful silence as he apologetically washes a shaken Dawn in her bathtub after pimping her to Nash for drugs, with violent results.
Comparisons to "Boogie Nights," which is a more distinctive and cinematically savvy film, may be inevitable. But "Wonderland's" facts aren't trying to compete with its predecessor's fictions. This is an absorbing and adroit (if not inventive), sobering and smart movie that is worth watching on its own merits.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th October 2003
Box Office USA: $1.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $2.5M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Releasing
Production compaines: Lions Gate Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 34 Rotten: 67
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: James Cox
Starring: Val Kilmer as John Holmes, Dylan McDermott as David Lind, Kate Bosworth as Dawn Schiller, Josh Lucas as Ron Launius, Lisa Kudrow as Sharon Holmes, Eric Bogosian as Eddie Nash, Christina Applegate as Susan Launius, Carrie Fisher as Sally Hansen, Tim Blake Nelson as Billy Deverell, Janeane Garofalo as Joy Miller, Natasha Gregson Wagner as Barbara Richardson, Ted Levine as Sam Nico, Russell Sams as Cherokee, M.C. Gainey as Billy Ward, Scoot McNairy as Jack, Joleigh Fioravanti as Alexa
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