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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Movie review: Wonderland *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Wonderland, the pinballing, chaotic new mess of a movie about real-life porn star John Holmes and his ambiguous connections to a 1981 multiple homicide on Los Angeles' Wonderland Avenue, is that rare film that comes fascinatingly close to being pointless. There is a way to spot these birds from a distance. Their markings are No. 1, a cast so overpacked that recognizable names fill even the tiniest role; No. 2, a vaguely independent sheen, and No. 3, a young director more under the spell of flash and effect than whether the story is engaging.

That would be James Cox, a New York University film graduate (class of '98) - but to be fair, who hasn't flubbed a job soon after college? He directs Wonderland within an inch of his life without stopping to give us a solid reason to care about its characters or their deaths. Instead, in no particular order, we get flashbacks, montages, split-screens, split-screen montages, washed-out colors, and sped-up action. He never met a sequence he didn't want to slice apart, toss in the air, and arbitrarily assemble in the hope that this itself lends depth.

When one sequence begins that involves drugs and guns and police and John Holmes (Val Kilmer), you're thinking Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. (That 1997 film was also inspired by John Holmes; the similarities end there.) When Cox layers in Patti Smith's “Gloria” and its famous line (“Jesus died for somebody's sins/but not mine”), the song hangs in the air hoping for poignancy.

Beneath the wreckage, poking out mostly in the guise of tantalizing performances, you can see the movie Cox had hoped to make: a police procedural by way of a character study. I should note: Wonderland is not about the porn industry or its waning days (again, that's Boogie Nights); and it's not really even about Holmes. He's more like a tour guide. When we meet him, Holmes is on his last legs of semi-stardom. He's a creep. Kilmer plays him like a charming creep, though, using his celebrity to score off drug dealers and coke fiends.

You feel bad for Kilmer. He's working off a script that suggests a normal Holmes buried beneath the sleazeball. But the movie isn't curious how he fell so far. The rest of the cast members are mostly one-note junkies and criminals played by Kate Bosworth, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Blake Nelson, and Dylan McDermott. Some end up dead, and who did it and how much Holmes knew about it becomes the mystery.

But if you find yourself searching for a reason to care - well, that's the real mystery. The only character of consequence is Sharon Holmes, John's estranged wife, played by Lisa Kudrow with a cold, shut-off opaqueness to John's world. But he's drawn to her, and you gather she's the only person in his life who understands consequence. Their friendship is an odd, promising story thread. And left dangling.

Wonderland is more interested in the desperation and the ashtray aura of the early '80s coke scene as an end to itself. This is what fuels the whole porn chic thing in pop culture today. It's a hipster wonderland held at arms length, and it comes with its own ready set of cliches: Would somebody tell me why the most dangerous man in movies like this is always the guy most prone to sit around in a terrycloth robe and red Speedo?



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