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
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
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
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.