Wonderland (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's no nudity whatsoever in James Cox's Wonderland, which is ironic, since it's about events from the life of the first big-time porn star, John Holmes (Val Kilmer). Unlike Boogie Nights, which was loosely based on the rise and fall of Holmes during his time in front of the camera, Wonderland takes a look at things "once the legend was over." By 1981, Holmes was no longer doing X-rated movies. His drug habit had forced him out of the industry, and, with no money to spend, he was scrounging and borrowing, trying to scrape together enough to buy the next hit. He had moved out of the house he shared with his wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), and was on the road with a teenage junkie named Dawn (Kate Bosworth). That's when events spun out of Holmes' control.

On July 1, four of the six members of a gang of drug dealers were brutally murdered in a house on Wonderland Ave. in Los Angeles. Holmes was tied into the crime, as was gangster Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). The police brought in the only uninjured survivor of the massacre, David Lind (Dylan McDermott), for questioning, and his version of events was damning to Holmes. Unsurprisingly, the ex-porn star's account was radically different, leaving the police stuck in a web of contradictions. Unfortunately, since neither Holmes nor Lind could be considered a reliable witness, it was virtually impossible to reconstruct the truth.

Borrowing a leaf from Rashomon, Wonderland shows two different interpretations of the same basic events. One represents the story Holmes tells; the other is Lind's tale. However, while in Rashomon the discrepancies occur because of legitimate differences in points-of-view, here they are the result of lies. Both Holmes and Lind are motivated by self-interest, not by a desire to provide the police with an accurate account of their perceptions. Cox also gives us glimpses of the "objective truth" - that is to say, events as they really happened. (The point of Rashomon is to dispute the existence of an objective truth.)

There isn't a likeable character in Wonderland. Even Dawn, who could have been portrayed as a victim, is shown to be less than innocent (in one scene, she allows herself to be pimped out to Nash so that the drug supply to Holmes isn't shut off). Everyone in this film is a bottom-feeder - individuals whose lives revolve around money, drugs, and violence. If there's no nudity in Wonderland, it's because sex doesn't enter the equation. These characters are much deeper in the muck. This is not one of those films where you're going to identify with a character. Some will find the experience of watching this picture to be an uncomfortable one. Others, like me, will be fascinated by the perversity of the characters and the intriguing way in which Cox has pieced together the storyline.

One could argue that Val Kilmer does his best work when portraying someone who actually lived. Alongside his incarnation of Jim Morrison, John Holmes represents the actor's most vivid character. Kilmer revels in the sleeze, showing how Holmes ingests it like a pig at his trough. Some may not appreciate what Kilmer does here, because Holmes comes across as such an unlikable, untrustworthy, and thoroughly reprehensible individual. As good as Kilmer is, however, there are a few times when he is almost upstaged. Josh Lucas is ferocious as the drug gang's leader and Eric Bogosian has some scary moments. Kate Bosworth has perfectly adapted the mannerisms of a junkie. And Lisa Kudrow plays Sharon with an air of defeated weariness.

Cox uses different amounts of grain and various levels of color desaturation in an effort to make the film look more gritty and give it a stronger "you are there" feel. He is successful, although one could argue that this is the kind of world that viewers may want to distance themselves from. Once you leave Wonderland, you may feel like you need a shower, but, while you're in the moment, it's a compelling journey into the depths of hell on earth.

Wonderland (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1