say your piece
ISSUE NO.154 23 OCT. 2003
Wondering How to Tell a Story?
By Chris Bellamy
    Mark Wahl - I mean Val Kilmer gives a strong, hard performance in the muddled "Wonderland."

Lions Gate Films
Directed by James Cox
Screenplay by James Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott
Produced by Holly Wiersma, Scott Putnam, Michael Paseornek and Ali Forman
Starring Val Kilmer, Josh Lucas, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Blake Nelson, Dylan McDermott, Eric Bogosian, Ted Levine and M.C. Gainey
Rated R

(out of four)

I don’t mean to overuse an old joke, but I liked “Wonderland” the first time I saw it—when it was called “Boogie Nights.”

The former is James Cox’s over-written and over-directed account of the real-life “Wonderland murders” of 1981.

The latter, Paul Thomas Anderson’s very fictionalized telling of parts of the same tale, was one of the best films of 1997.

It’s a shame that “Wonderland” isn’t better than it is because this story of sex, drugs and murder—like all stories of sex, drugs and murder—is loaded with potential. But Cox, whose biggest claim to fame before this was the little-seen Jared Leto vehicle “Highway” (2001), tries to do way too much with the story and, despite several good sequences, the film turns out as a mess—and it makes for frustrating viewing.

“Wonderland” stars Val Kilmer—in one of the most impressive roles of his career—as porn king John Holmes, better known to some as Johnny Wadd (insert ejaculation joke here).

On July 4, 1981, four people are found murdered and another critically injured at 8763 Wonderland Avenue, and we find out later that they were beaten to death with pipes.

The bodies of small-time drug dealers Ron Launius (Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Nelson) are found, along with Barbara Richardson (Natasha Gregson Wagner) and Joy Miller (Janeane Garafalo). Launius’ wife, Susan (Christina Applegate), somehow survived the attacks.

And so we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out exactly what involvement Holmes had in the brutal killings.

The filmmakers, unfortunately, don’t make it very easy for us to figure that out, and by the end, there’s no way to be sure exactly what conclusion we are supposed to draw from the events seen on screen. Perhaps with a more experienced director, “Wonderland” wouldn’t have been so muddled.

When the film takes place, Holmes is basically a has-been in the adult film industry and spends all of his time trying to score coke.

Estranged from his wife (Lisa Kudrow), he is supposedly planning on running away with his teenage lover, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), who he’s been with since she was just 15 years old.

Holmes gets involved with Launius, Deverell and ex-con David Lind (a typically flat Dylan McDermott) as well as, separately, the infamous Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), a nightclub owner who ran the gamut of illegal activity in Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s.

This is where it starts to get confusing. While following the investigation led by Sam Nico (Ted Levine), Louis Cruz (Frankie G) and Mike Peters (M.C. Gainey), we see the events leading up to and including the murders through two separate sets of eyes—those of Lind and Holmes—in a pair of separate interrogations.

The two stories contradict each other, of course—as each accuses the other of lying—as the detectives try to fish through all the evidence and testimony and figure out who among them has a pipe fetish.

This much they can agree on: Holmes, Lind, Launius and Deverell conspire to rob the uber-powerful Nash for all he’s got. They do so, but they make the tragic mistake of leaving him alive, and he’s quite certain to get his vengeance. What is unclear is how instrumental Holmes was in the whole thing. Did he actually kill anyone? Did he plan the hit on Nash? Did he steal the money? the guns? the drugs?

Confused? Me, too.

Telling two versions of a story can be an effective storytelling method if done well. In “Wonderland,” it’s not. Instead of enlightening us, the constant flashbacks to the interrogations only break the continuity of the narrative. The film can’t find a consistent flow because it keeps switching back to Lind or Holmes talking to an investigator. Shut up, already! Just show us the story!

Cox further mucks it up with a barrage of dates and newspaper headlines that are supposed to help transition scenes, but instead only serve as major distractions.
In the end, what we’re left with is merely a hint at what actually went down that day in 1981.

Still, there is quite a bit to admire in the film.

Nearly all of the performances are strong. Kilmer does a fine job convincing us that he really is in need of a hit, all the time, like a true coke addict.

Bosworth is believably naive as Holmes’ young girlfriend and Lucas plays the role of the delightfully reckless druggie very well.

Even Cox’s style works. The film has a strong, gritty feel that works perfectly for the material. Some scenes—in particular those between Holmes and his wife—are extremely effective and hint at what could have been a very good movie.

But instead, it’s a near miss. There is just too much going on for the story to be intelligible. The story of the Wonderland murders is loaded with potential. The movie as a whole is interesting, but can’t quite manage to be compelling.

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