(director/writer: James Cox; screenwriters: Captain Mauzner/D. Loriston Scott/Todd Samovitz; cinematographer: Michael Grady; editor: Jeff McEvoy; music: Cliff Martinez; cast: Val Kilmer (John Holmes), Lisa Kudrow (Sharon Holmes), Kate Bosworth (Dawn Schiller), Dylan McDermott (David Lind), Josh Lucas (Ron Launius), Tim Blake Nelson (Billy Deverell), Eric Bogosian (Eddie Nash), Ted Levine (Sam Nico), Franky G. (Louis Cruz), Christina Applegate (Susan Launius), Natasha Gregson-Wagner (Barbara Richardson), Janeane Garofalo (Joy Miller), Carrie Fisher (Sally Hansen), Faizon Love (Greg Diles), M.C. Gainey (Billy Ward); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Paseornek/Holly Wiersma; Lions Gate Films; 2003)

“Cox’s film is really an empty experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

James Cox helms a drama he co-wrote with three others that is based on the true story of the gruesome 1981 bloody head bashing lead pipe murders on Wonderland Avenue in LA’s Laurel Canyon, a murderous rampage that implicated former porn legend of the 1970s John Holmes (Val Kilmer). Holmes was arrested six months later, but was acquitted of the multiple homicide charges. He died in 1988 of an AIDS-related illness. The film was so fuzzy about the incident and the witnesses were so unreliable that it cleared up nothing about the unsolved murder, even though it tried to insert its own version without offering any visible proof it had the answers.

The film begins after the legendary stud’s career was finished in the porn industry due to his heavy cocaine addiction causing him to be unable to perform. Holmes had been in 2,000 porn films and had about 14,000 sex partners, and was known for having an enormous penis that measured 14 inches. John Holmes — aka Johnny Wadd, aka “the king of porn” — was now a loser, a liar, a scrounger and unreliable self-pitying has-been hanging out with a bad crowd. He was estranged from his wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), and was on the road with a teenage junkie named Dawn (Kate Bosworth). Things were out of control in his life, as all he cared about was scoring his next hit.

The plot basically boils down to conflicting side by side testimonies of Holmes against his accuser, a biker drug-dealer named David Lind (Dylan McDermott). Their stories unfold through use of flashbacks.

Detectives Sam Nico (Ted Levine) and Louis Cruz (Franky G.) question Lind (Dylan McDermott) when he voluntarily comes forward to tell his story. Lind’s crime crew of Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson) and their loud-mouthed braggart boss Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) were into endless wild parties in their Wonderland residence. They took a shine to Holmes for his celebrity status, as it made Ron feel good to make himself out to be superior to the legend by degrading him in public. Holmes was broke at this point and would do anything to score, and according to Lind went along with a scheme to rip off a kingpin mobster nightclub owner named Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), an Arab who emigrated to LA in the 1950s from Palestine whose birth name was Adel Nasrallah. He was someone whom Holmes partied with and scored dope.

The tale goes on to show how the wormy Holmes left the kitchen door open after a visit to Nash’s, whereby Billy, Ron and David entered when Holmes left. They roughed up and robbed the Arab of over a million dollars in drugs and jewels and antique guns. When Holmes thinks he’s not getting his fair cut, he betrays them to the Arab and the bloodbath takes place where Ron, Billy and his wife (Janeane Garofalo), and Dave’s girlfriend (Natasha Gregson-Wagner) get brutally killed, while Ron’s wife Susan (Christina Applegate) survives the savage beating.

Holmes’ version is different, whereas he says he was forced to cooperate with the Arab or else he was threatened that all his loved ones would have been killed. He just acknowledges leaving the door open to Wonderland but was out of the area when the crime went down and didn’t see what happened. So we are left with hopelessly conflicting accounts and have no way to tell who is telling the truth.

Wonderland’s strong point is the acting performance by Val Kilmer, who inhabits his character’s sleaze with a relish and shows someone coming apart because of his unhealthy appetites. The porn star leads an incredibly dizzy, reckless and desperate life. While the director made this into a flashy film that catches the hipster flavor of that period and the screen dazzles with split-screens, fast-cutting and an entrancing druggie atmospheric style. Yet Cox’s film is really an empty experience, since the murder mystery was never even attempted to be cleared up in an honest way and the characters themselves would not be worthy of such notoriety if it weren’t for the special one-note talent Mr. Holmes brings to the table. That the only one in the film who seems to be reliable and knows that Holmes did the crime is his wife Sharon, but that doesn’t amount to much since she was a paid consultant to the film and her version merely makes her look good as the only reliable person involved but does not clear up things with any visible proof. I found myself not caring or believing any of these characters, as this tabloid story failed to capture my imagination. I just got the feeling this was an indulgent film not unlike the sleazy porn films that Holmes starred in, as grisly violence is substituted for sex to catch the public’s insatiable need for extreme crime stories involving the so-called in-crowd.

Wonderland Poster

REVIEWED ON 2/19/2004 GRADE: C+     https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/