- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

If you’re at all familiar with the late and unlamented John Holmes, you may know he was a porn star. You also may know he died of complications from AIDS.

You may not know, however, about speculation that he was involvedin a brutal quadruple slaying in Los Angeles in 1981. (He was tried and acquitted the following year.)

Now that you do know, you may not care… and I wouldn’t blame you.

But “Wonderland,” starring Val Kilmer as Mr. Holmes, neither glorifies its subject nor revels in his lifestyle. Directed by the unproven but stylistically aggressive James Cox, it’s actually a handy companion to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” which was based in part on the Holmes legend.

Where “Nights” followed its Holmesian character from obscurity to the heights of subcultural fame and hubris, and ultimately into misery, “Wonderland” is all denouement. It starts with a descent and ends with a crash.

Unlike “Nights,” there’s no pornography in it. “Wonderland,” in an amazing display of self-restraint on the part of its committee of screenwriters, alludes to Mr. Holmes’ notoriously outsized anatomy only a couple of times, once out of a party girl’s zoological nosiness and then from the sickened perspective of his estranged wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow).

Still, why the movie? Why not let Mr. Holmes’ scuzzy legend lie undisturbed, hidden away behind the squeaky-hinged doors of adult video stores?

For what it’s worth, I think the ‘80s, as a pop-culture curiosity, are back. Hence the teen-movie revival of recent years. The other fascination is cocaine, the emblematic pleasure drug of the decade. Hence movies such as “Blow.”

There are mass quantities of “blow” in “Wonderland.” It’s constantly snorted and smoked. People do desperate things to get their noses on it — things like robbing a powerful nightclub kingpin (Eric Bogosian) who has the city’s government in his back pocket.

That’s the rub of the multiple homicides in “Wonderland,” but it unspools in a zigzag fashion, a la Quentin Tarantino.

To make matters even more postmodern, this whodunit is told from the angles of not one but two unreliable narrators: Mr. Holmes and David Lind (Dylan McDermott), a tough and unsavory biker dude. Both finger each other for masterminding the robbery and, by extension, the retaliatory murders, and neither is believable.

The duo’s association begins at a party at the Laurel Canyon pad of Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), a magnet for unemployed losers and petty dealers. (The great Tim Blake Nelson and Janeane Garofalo are among the grimy bunch.)

With his underage girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), sometimes in tow, and sometimes left for long stretches on the streets or in fleabag motels, Mr. Holmes flits in and out of the Wonderland Avenue bungalow in an endless cycle of consuming and scoring drugs.

Tantalizingly, he promises Chihuahua-toting Dawn that he’ll take her away — right after he takes care of “one more thing.” One more thing leads to four dead bodies and a grisly scene that police compare to the Sharon Tate murders of 1969.

Mr. Holmes’ involvement isn’t firmly resolved, but a scene in which he turns up, blood-soaked but unwounded, on his ex-wife’s Pasadena doorstep suggests pretty strongly that he was guilty of something.

None of the performances in “Wonderland” are particularly eye-opening. Mr. Kilmer does debauchery just fine, but there are no revelations since his turn as Jim Morrison in “The Doors.”

Mr. McDermott, whose character seems modeled after Waingro in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” is outfitted with forbidding tattoos and a thick goatee but ultimately never shakes his sweetheart image. Mr. Lucas, on the other hand, is convincing as a coke-addled reprobate and redeems himself for the risible villain he played in “Hulk.”

Miss Kudrow was unfortunately wasted as the puzzling Sharon Holmes, who, for reasons known only to her, held out hope that her devious husband might come to his senses. She even develops a peculiarly motherly relationship with Dawn.

Why either of them put up with John Holmes is a mystery. I’d like to say it could only have happened in the ‘80s, but we all know that’s sadly not the case.

**1/2

TITLE: “Wonderland”

RATING: R (Strong violence, brutality; profanity; pervasive drug use; sexuality; nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by James Cox. Produced by Michael Paseornek and Holly Wiersma. Written by Mr. Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott. Cinematography by Michael Grady. Editing by Jeff McEvoy.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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