Eric D. Snider

Wonderland (2003)

John Holmes, as if you didn't know, was the star of more than 1,000 porn films in the 1970s. That someone who is not a woman can attain star status in the world of straight porn is pretty impressive by itself, and Holmes', er, talents were apparently even more amazing. And by talents, I mean the size of his penis. (What else would I mean? His elocution?)

Anyway, "Wonderland" is sort of the story of John Holmes' post-fame life, but it's more accurately a garden-variety Hollywood saga of drugs and money that happens to be true and that happens to have involved John Holmes. His porn-stardom barely figures into it, except that we can assume that's where he picked up his drug habits.

In 1981, four people were murdered on Wonderland Avenue in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. They were all drug users and traders and thieves, and they were also acquaintances of Holmes'. His involvement in the murders, or lack of involvement, is the issue.

With a bit of "Rashomon"-style time-jumping and contradictory-story-telling, director James Cox (who co-wrote with three others) introduces us to a washed-up John Holmes (played by Val Kilmer). He's estranged from his wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow, doing solid dramatic work) and is cruising around Southern California with Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), rescuing her from a fanatical Christian do-gooder and having sex with her in the do-gooder's bathroom just for good measure. This is a classy guy we're dealing with here.

Drugs are John's thing now, and it's a hobby he and Dawn can enjoy together. His lowlife associates include David Lind (Dylan McDermott), Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson), all more or less the same guys, as far as I can tell, except that Billy is the one who actually owns the Wonderland home where the murders ultimately occur. John wants to help the gang acquire some capital via stealing it, but he's pretty unreliable when it comes to, well, doing anything, so he's a source of frustration to the group. This leads to a number of scenes featuring sweaty, disheveled men arguing about and using drugs. The depression is palpable; rarely has L.A. looked so ugly, brown and unglamorous.

John does manage to set up a robbery; alas, the victim is high-level lowlife Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), who is not happy to have been robbed. And so there's trouble.

This is tepid stuff here. It has a hint of character drama, and Cox is good at evoking time and place, but mostly it just wallows in the seediness of the world of drugs. Holmes is hardly a former star who's angry at how life has treated him; he's really just a guy who likes drugs. As such, he's barely discernible from the countless other characters in other movies who also like drugs (or, for that matter, from the other characters in this movie who like drugs). Kilmer's persona is strong, and he brings a certain energy to the screen, but he does nothing to make John Holmes any more interesting than the dope addict of the week on "NYPD Blue."

Grade: C+

Rated R, a lot of harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, partial nudity, some very strong violence

1 hr., 39 min.

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