review for Wonderland on AllMovie

Wonderland (2003)
by Mark Deming review

If you're making a film about multiple murders, powerful and heavily armed drug dealers, folks on the run from both sides of the law, and the world's most celebrated porn star, you'd have to work pretty hard for the results to be uninteresting, but for better or worse Wonderland manages that remarkable achievement. Based on the true story of John C. Holmes -- the adult film star best known for his performances in the Johnny Wadd films as well as his freakishly large penis -- and his involvement in the brutal murders of four people in an apartment on Los Angeles' Wonderland Avenue, Wonderland tells its tangled tale as if the audience is already richly familiar with all of the elements of the story. Consequently, the characters are poorly drawn and the story sketchy and often puzzling. Holmes' career as a porn star is barely mentioned, and without this subtext, Val Kilmer's portrayal is ultimately that of an extraordinarily wasted basehead, and it's all but impossible to imagine anyone (even this film's gallery of lowlifes) wanting anything to do with him without the lure of his fame. The background, motives, and relationships of most of the characters are a mystery -- the film never clarifies that Holmes never got around to divorcing his wife after their relationship went south, so it seems odd that Holmes has both a girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), and a spouse, Sharon Holmes (Lisa Kudrow), especially since the two women seem to be good friends. While Kilmer and Kudrow both do well with poorly written roles (especially Kilmer, whose precarious balance of braggadocio and abject terror not only captures Holmes quite well but gives the film most of its few effective moments), most of the cast has practically nothing to work with -- several gifted performers are practically tossed away, especially Tim Blake Nelson, Eric Bogosian, Ted Levine, and Janeane Garofalo, the latter of whom gets exactly one line of dialogue in the final cut. Furthermore, the film never seems to know just when it's taking place, desperately aiming for a '70s ambience even though the story takes place in the early '80s. Wonderland begs comparisons with Boogie Nights, which told a fictionalized version of John Holmes' rise and fall, and Wonderland director James Cox lifts more than a few stylistic elements from Paul Thomas Anderson's film. But, while Cox had a sad and compelling true story at his disposal, the results are flat and uninvolving, telling us almost nothing about Holmes or his fall into addiction and desperation, while Boogie Nights made "Dirk Diggler"'s life both tragic and telling.