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Val Kilmer tries to escape from "Wonderland."

© 2003, Lions Gate
All Rights Reserved

During a long summer week in Hollywood, circa 1981, famed porn star John Holmes was involved, to an uncertain extent, with a mass murder on Wonderland Ave. "Wonderland" details this event, with Holmes (Val Kilmer) and his girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth, "Blue Crush"), weaving their way around the seedy underbelly of the city, looking to score drugs from friends (including Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, Christina Applegate, and Janeane Garofalo), planning to rob a Los Angeles nightclub kingpin named Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), and, when the robbery goes awry, seeking out Holmes' wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) for help.

The general frustration with "Wonderland" (IMDb listing) is that the case was never solved. Several individuals were involved with the murders, but no one was trustworthy enough to answer questions about what actually happened that hot July night. Compensating for the lack of focus inherent in the story, director James Cox (of the putrid straight-to-video road movie, "Highway") has selected a "Rashomon" style of narrative to tell this tale. The framework serves the story well, as without anybody fessing up to the crime, who really knows what happened? Multiple viewpoints paint a portrait of the confusion and horror of the incident. Unfortunately, this approach undermines the drama of "Wonderland," introducing too many characters and subplots the film doesn't know what to do with. Couple the narrative schizophrenia with Cox's annoying predictability in portraying the era - the film should be titled "Cigarettes, Blow, and F-Words" - and "Wonderland" ends up being a nice attempt to capture a small part of Hollywood Babylon; but nothing catches fire.

Armed with a map of drug and disco movies to lightly steal from, Cox attempts to weave together the hedonistic world John Holmes made famous, with the after-effects of his fame, in which he fell into obscurity and substance abuse. Cox can't have it both ways: either the film is a document trying to uncover the mystery behind the murders, or it's a poem to Holmes' rancid charms, and how he was able to convince anyone near him of his infallibility. In mixing the two, Cox doesn't find focus in the story, leaving both ends high and dry.

Working with a huge cast, Cox is able to create the circular feeling of being stuck with liars and junkies. There are a handful of great performances in the film (Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Ted Levine), but most of the actors are just lazily going through "drug acting," which is a free ticket to scream, curse incessantly, and look awful. I'm all for a little crazed coke fiend acting, but ultimately Cox doesn't offer anything more about these people than that.

Trying to fill some pretty impressive pants is Val Kilmer. I was hoping Kilmer would find a way to get lost in this role, to give the screen a better portrait of the complicated life Holmes lived, which has been used only as pie crust in Paul Thomas Anderson's sparkling "Boogie Nights." Because Kilmer isn't allowed the screen time needed to convey why people would follow him so blindly- aside from his famous genitalia- the patches of character development outside of the murder plot feel like too little, too late. Cox and the screenwriters don't arrange enough time for Kilmer to have his Holmes grow into the iconic figure he has become today. And for a man who was central to the mystery of the murders, there isn't enough about Holmes in the movie to feel satisfied the film is accomplishing something or answering questions (cable specials have gone further in detailing this crime). And for a film featuring John Holmes, the words "just isn't enough" seem like sacrilege.

Filmfodder Grade: C-

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