It seems inevitable that one day, a movie will come along that’s more repulsive than “Wonderland.” But for now, this exploration of a 1981 quadruple homicide linked to porn star John Holmes is as icky as it gets.
Director James Cox has brought back to life a half-dozen people so wretched that they deserve to be forgotten. Now their squalid lives and gory deaths will be preserved for generations to come.
His exhumation reveals nothing interesting or surprising. The victims’ deaths weren’t poignant, tragic or even pathetic: only violent and lurid and, despite their link to two marginally famous names, utterly banal.
If “Wonderland” is a cautionary tale, its message could be delivered more succinctly by Mr. Mackey, the inept guidance counselor on “South Park”: “Drugs are bad. You shouldn’t do drugs, ‘cause — drugs are bad, mmmkay?”
Cox, who co-wrote the screenplay with three others, tries to get at the truth behind an infamous crime: In July of 1981, four known associates of Holmes were bludgeoned to death inside a drug den on Wonderland Avenue in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Holmes, who died of AIDS in 1988, was tried and acquitted, as was Eddie Nash, the Palestinian-American nightclub mogul widely believed to have ordered the killings.
Cox never explains why the police couldn’t find Nash’s goons who committed the crimes; like the detectives he depicts, he’s star-struck by Holmes (Val Kilmer) and how far this charismatic, famously well-endowed performer managed to fall.
A despicable man's story
This territory has been trod before, by Paul Thomas Anderson in “Boogie Nights,” which was inspired by Holmes’ career. Besides being everything “Wonderland” was not (bold, visionary, funny, poignant), Anderson’s film had its own imaginative, unforgettable spin on the robbery of Nash that in real life led to the killings.
By the time of the murders, Holmes’ porn career was over, replaced by a fetid, narcotics-fueled existence; free-base cocaine was his favorite. Schlepping around with his teenage girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), he appears to live on the charity of various enablers who appreciate the novelty of having “Johnny Wadd” around.
These include the feral, swaggering drug dealer Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), roughneck biker David Lind (an unconvincing Dylan McDermott) and their pushover buddy Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson). The murder victims turn out to be Launius, Deverell and his wife (Janeane Garofalo), and Lind’s girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Launius’ girlfriend (Christina Applegate) was brutally beaten but survived; Lind was out of town.
(If there was anything tragic about the Wonderland murders, it was that the women were killed, but Cox robs them of their humanity by treating them like part of the set decoration: Garofalo with a needle in her arm over here, Gregson Wagner with a dollar bill in her nose over there.)
Lind gets to tell police his version of what happened; Holmes later does the same, with numerous flashbacks in between. In both versions, the murders are clearly a retaliatory strike by Nash (Eric Bogosian), who was robbed of drugs, guns and cash by Launius, Lind and Deverell. What’s unclear is Holmes’ involvement in either crime. To hear him tell it, in both cases he just opened the door and let the bad guys in.
But who cares? Even if that’s all he did (highly unlikely), Holmes is a despicable person. Kilmer appears to be gunning for sympathy by playing him like an autistic kid, spouting incoherent fragments in a high-pitched mumble.
The only ones who come out of “Wonderland” looking good are Schiller and Holmes’ long-estranged wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), and it’s no coincidence: Schiller served as an associate producer and Mrs. Holmes as a consultant on the movie. Schiller is portrayed as a vulnerable kid unable to let go of her first love, Sharon as a principled woman whose husband has turned into a self-destructive monster.
“Wonderland” is trite and ultimately appalling, and the accountable party is Cox, who tries to pump up the action with an incoherent medley of attention-grabbing visual tricks. Cox finally reveals his “theory” about what really happened amid a sickening depiction of the murders that he seems to believe should serve as an exciting climax. He asks us to anticipate the brutality, then forces us to participate in it.
The problem is not that “Wonderland” is violent; it’s that the violence doesn’t serve a story worth telling. It’s nasty, brutish and inconsequential.