Wonderland (review)

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Summer of Blood

Make no mistake, it was still the 70s in July 1981, when those infamous murders occurred on Wonderland Avenue in the Hollywood Hills. Well, we’re told the murders are infamous, as brutal as Charles Manson’s rampage 12 years earlier, though I’d never heard of them. But never mind: Brutal, bloody murder, infamous or not, is good for movies. Even better is when drugs and sleazy nightclub owners and former porn stars are involved, which is of course the case with Wonderland, James Cox’s hyperkinetic, retro-groovy, and sorta superfluous deconstruction of the crime.

So: The 70s. Does anything say “summer-of-love hangover” better than a shabby, worn-out porn star hooked on hard stuff like coke and heroin? I think not. Val Kilmer (The Salton Sea, Red Planet), who has never shied from a dirty job and is never afraid of looking less than heroic, makes John Holmes — formerly known as The Porn King and now wallowing in addict-hell — twitchy and teary, a disintegrating mess of a man. You might feel sorry for Holmes if he weren’t such a slippery weasel, desperate for a taste of the attention he used to command and finding a bit of it at the drug den/party central run by Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson: Holes, Minority Report) out of his Wonderland Avenue apartment. Billy’s friends — a motley crew of users and dealers and psychos — don’t much care for John, but he’s good for amusing the girls by dropping trou and revealing his legendarily large, um, endowment.

In the way of things with drug addicts, not much of what they scream or rant or mumble while hopped up makes much sense, and perhaps it actually is Cox’s intention to leave the viewer with the same confused understanding of matters. What is clear, though, is that there develops some sort of beef between Billy’s crew and nutjob nightclub impresario Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Igby Goes Down) over a couple of antique guns — insufficient funds changed hands over them, apparently. So Billy’s crew stages a daring robbery of Nash’s crib, walking off with drugs and cash and the guns, and all on the inside info supplied by John, who has a slippery, weaselly not-quite-friendship with Nash, too.

Trust is never an issue with folks like these, and Cox does get a lot of entertaining play out of the conflicting tales told by those who manage not to be viciously murdered at Billy’s place by Nash’s goons in retaliation for the robbery. Holmes, of course, weaves a tale of pathetic misery to the cops (led by the always terrific Ted Levine [The Truth About Charlie, Joy Ride]), of how he was just a pawn in the hands of people far wilier and more dangerous than himself, and Holmes’s oily charisma — this is a stunning performance from Kilmer — is almost enough to make you believe him. But then there’s David Lind (Dylan McDermott: Runaway Jury, Home for the Holidays), a dealer who was in on the Nash job but was away the night four people, including his old lady, were bludgeoned to death on Wonderland. Lind paints himself if not quite the choir boy then still in as rosy a light as possible, considering that he admits to just about every felony under the sun except murder… and Lind points the finger at Holmes as the one who ratted Billy and Co. out to Nash.

Wonderland has its charms, not the least of which is its cast, including Lisa Kudrow (Marci X, Analyze That) as Holmes’s skittish wife and Kate Bosworth (The Rules of Attraction, Blue Crush) as his too-young girlfriend — the two women maintain a surprisingly cordial relationship, mostly because the wife wants nothing to do with her husband. And then there’s McDermott and Josh Lucas (Secondhand Lions, Hulk), as Billy’s psychopathic buddy, whom you can’t blame for wanting to cut loose and break from their typical pretty-boy looks by wearing lots of bad polyester and aggressive facial hair and snarling out George Carlin’s seven favorite naughty words at every opportunity — and they do a fine job as they stretch artistically.

But there’s something of the dilettante in Cox’s handling of it all. He knows how to fiddle with cool 70s split-screens and grainy washed-out film stocks, but despite the valiant efforts of his cast, particularly Kilmer, he never really gets us under the surface of the sleaze. The danger and the grit feel exactly like the simulation they are.

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