A hazy view of porn star's drug world

October 24, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Wonderland marks a "biopic" first: Moviegoers will know less about the real-life subject going out than they did going in.

Forget porno-watchers who remember John Holmes (Val Kilmer) as the monarch of blue movies in the '70s. Those who've seen Boogie Nights, with its Holmes-inspired antihero Dirk Diggler, will already have a better grasp of the porn boom's cruddy drug-fueled euphoria and death spiral than they'll get from Wonderland.

The movie tells and retells, roughly two and a half times, the story of how Holmes, already over the hill in 1981, either triggered or took direct part in a quadruple killing in a drug dealer's pad on Hollywood's Wonderland Avenue. The filmmaker, James Cox, builds that "either/or" into the script. The action unfolds from the divergent perspectives of Holmes and David Lind (Dylan McDermott), crony of drug-crew leader Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), then tops off this two-part narrative with crucial details supplied by Holmes' estranged, still-loyal wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow).

The filmmakers aim for a rancid Rashomon. But Kurosawa's movie laid open its characters while evoking the futility of answering "what really happened" at a crime scene. By the end of Wonderland, the opposite happens: The crime has been explicated, and the characters left in the dark - sometimes literally. When it comes out on DVD, you'll need to use the frame-by-frame function to discover whatever it is Janeane Garofalo is doing in this movie.

The rival points of view succeed only in conveying that strung-out men as different as a fading low-end celebrity like Holmes and a drug-dealer's lieutenant like Lind will say anything to support their habits and save their skins. There's nothing dramatic or even revelatory about this demonstration of drugs reducing humans to a state of jacked-up animality.

From the beginning, the movie unfolds in a Darwinian cesspool. And rather than make the narrative profanely profound, the structure turns it into a perceptual game gussied up with camera and processing tricks and split-screen imagery. The actors can do little except fleetingly anchor the buzzing action.

As the narcissistic club-owner and drug lord Eddie Nash, who took bloody revenge on Launius for a home-invasion robbery, Eric Bogosian wears out his welcome in nanoseconds. Nash is the kind of half-note villain who refers to himself in the third person.

Kilmer does have a hyped-up junkie's glad-handing routine down pat. Kate Bosworth is well-cast as the teen-age gal who forgives his neglect for the air of excitement he brings whenever he re-enters her life. But not even the wily, daring Lisa Kudrow, who brings weight to moral disapproval, can make sense of the crucial relationship between Sharon and John Holmes.

Sharon ceased to be his active spouse (they stayed legally married) after he told her that he had measured himself in a men's room and discovered his life's purpose. But she stands by her man - out of what? Loyalty for an undepicted past? Friendship for his current main squeeze? The saddest thing about Wonderland is that it's so maladroit. Even when it raises questions it kills your curiosity.


Starring Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Dylan McDermott

Directed by James Cox

Rated R

Released by: Lions Gate

Time 104 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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