Wonderland (2003) Movie Review

It takes a bold filmmaker to splash the legend of John Holmes (aka porn star Johnny Wadd) up on the screen before his film has even started, giving the hard-to-believe basics of Holmes' legend (1,000 films made, slept with 14,000 women), and then say that the movie to follow isn't about all of that, it's about what happened to John afterward. One imagines many an aging porn connoisseur ducking out the theater door upon that announcement. But director James Cox has made a solid bet, for the events of the summer of 1981 on Los Angeles's Wonderland Avenue make anything that could have happened before in Holmes's life seem like the most inconsequential trivia.

On July 1 of that year, four people were savagely beaten to death in a Laurel Canyon apartment that had long been a party hangout and drug-dealing haven; a fifth person was put into intensive care. Holmes (Val Kilmer) was at the center of the tangle of paranoia, greed, and confusion that led to the massacre. Always hanging out at the apartment scamming drugs for his vacuum-like habit, Holmes incurs the enmity of the hard cases living there (played by Tim Blake Nelson, Dylan McDermott in a frighteningly unconvincing biker beard, and Josh Lucas). To make it up to them, Holmes acts as their inside man for a robbery of the palatial home of his buddy Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), who just happens to be one of the biggest club-owners in Southern California and a bona-fide gangster, to boot. Things go poorly after the robbery, to say the least.

This Gordian knot is painstakingly teased out, one strand at a time by Cox, who's not afraid to use every trick in the stylistic cheatbook along the way, but also wants to show the crime from a multitude of perspectives, leaving it up in the air until pretty close to the end, exactly what happened, and what kind of a man Holmes really was.

Kilmer, who's back from the land of vapid studio vehicles (Red Planet) and apparently liking the idea of acting again, plays Holmes like a lost, skittish dog, with a mop of shaggy curls on his head and a tendency to bounce from one person to the next, greedy for any acceptance or affection. The performance is a long way from the saintly, bruised innocence of Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler, the Holmes alter ego in Boogie Nights, the film to which Wonderland will inevitably be compared. That's unfortunate, because as impressive as Nights is, it's a much more conventional film, preferring to follow the same rise-and-fall celebrity arc that we've seen time and again. Wonderland drops us into Holmes's pathetic world after he's already collapsed, treated like a circus freak at parties, and just grubbing to get by. This is a man already starting at zero, but with plenty of moral lines left to be crossed.

There's plenty of good acting to savor here, between Kilmer's ego-free soul-baring, the fiery, dark fury that strobes out from Lucas any time he enters the frame, and even Lisa Kudrow (playing Holmes' long-estranged wife), who shows in one iron-willed showdown with Holmes that she has more than enough to make it as a dramatic actress once Friends finally (finally!) calls it quits. Kate Bosworth, as Holmes's girlfriend Dawn, is grating at first, but her hyper mannerisms mesh quite nicely with Kilmer's, and she shows quite a bit of growth from the affectless blonde of Blue Crush.

Unfortunately, one also has to reckon with Bogosian, who's got undeniable skills as a playwright, but doesn't seem to have learned what it is that actors actually do. His scenes as the Palestinian Nash are made laughable by his ludicrous accent and stretched out to intolerable lengths by his hammy overacting. Putting such a lousy performer in a pivotal role like this is a distracting mistake, but not a fatal one. Wonderland as a film also suffers quite a few times from similarly hammy overreaching and trying to cram too much down viewers' throats. But it's a mistake of ambition, not of a lack of talent, and portends quite well for Cox's future.

It's not at all what most would expect to see in a movie about one of the world's most famous porn stars, which is a vote quite definitely in its favor.

The DVD release is a double-disc affair, with writer-director commentaries, deleted scenes, and nearly half an hour of footage from the actual Wonderland crime scene. A Court TV documentary about the killings is also included on the disc set along with the feature-length documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes.

Take 14,001.


Wonderland (2003) Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2003


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