Late porn giant John C. Holmes receives further immortalization in a scuzzy representation of the infamous Hollywood Hills murders in which he was implicated. With its mannered, hyped-up style, James Cox's second feature has absolutely nothing to say about its characters and their lamentable actions. Fair-to-middling B.O. looms.

The late porn giant John C. Holmes receives further bigscreen immortalization in “Wonderland,” an aptly scuzzy representation of the infamous Hollywood Hills murders in which Holmes was implicated. With its mannered, hyped-up style too obviously meant to reflect the ugliness and drug-addled nature of the scene it depicts, James Cox’s second feature (after “Highway”) holds the attention with its “Rashomon”-like presentation of sordid events, but has absolutely nothing to say about its characters and their lamentable actions. Fair-to-middling B.O. looms.

Part of the problem is that “Wonderland” has a bad ending. Despite the horrific nature of the killings — investigators called the crime scene the bloodiest since the Tate-LoBianco murders — and the repellent personalities of the participants, no one was ever properly punished for the deed, even though it seems abundantly clear who was responsible. Pic unavoidably leaves an empty feeling at the end, as if it were hardly worth going through all this unpleasantness for no payoff.

Nor is it possible to view Holmes, whose reign as king of porn was already history by the time of the murders, as a tragic or, frankly, very interesting figure; he was simply a guy who made it big, so to speak, then irresponsibly blew all his money on drugs. Pic’s half-hearted attempts to make him seem like a charming rogue and naif who got in over his head are unpersuasive.

So it’s really just the grunginess of the scene, played up (or down) for all it’s worth, that compels interest, and it is a sorry lot that the film’s many lively actors have come aboard to play. The basic story is that, in late June 1981, Holmes (a well-cast Val Kilmer), heavily in debt and having burned almost every drug dealer in L.A., became involved with a bunch of loser addicts and dealers including hot-headed ringleader Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), business partner Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson) and lowlife David Lind (Dylan McDermott).

Having tried and failed to raise cash from the sale of Launius’ antique guns through his friend, notorious Hollywood nightclub owner and underworld figure Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), Holmes apparently told Launius of the whereabouts of a major stash at Nash’s home and arranged to leave a door at the house ajar so Launius and his boys could get in to rob it. This they did, taking Nash for a huge haul in drugs and other booty. But it didn’t take Nash long to figure out Holmes’ role in the affair or for the latter to finger the perpetrators, who were brutally murdered in revenge.

But various details remain, and are likely to remain forever, unclear, as the film points out with strenuous effort. After an intro sets up the desperate us-against-the-world love affair between Holmes and young g.f. Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), focus shifts to Lind, a thuggish biker who, in the wake of the murders, agrees to tell his version of events to the cops.

In this longest account, flashbacks show Holmes partying with Launius and company, drawing a map of Nash’s home and assisting in plotting the robbery. But when Launius cuts Holmes out of the latter’s perceived fair share of the loot, Holmes unhesitatingly rats them out to Nash.

After an interlude in which Holmes unsuccessfully begs his stable, principled, pre-porn-career wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), to help him, Holmes tells his side of the story to the police, who might give him immunity and put him in a witness protection program if he tells all.

Holmes maintains he was a helpless pawn, first forced by Launius to help rip off “the Nash,” then tortured by Nash until he revealed the identity and whereabouts of the robbers. But when Holmes insists he wasn’t present for the murders, the police realize they haven’t got a witness to anything and let him go.

A final alternate version has Holmes forced by Nash’s hit squad to participate in the killings. But whatever his involvement, Holmes and Dawn drive off into the sunset in the end, with no one, including the audience, any wiser for the experience.

Cox and his trio of screenwriting collaborators neither glamorize nor moralize about the pathetic characters, whom they are willing to present in all their ugliness; pic has a palpably putrid look that’s dominated by shades of brown, and characters’ faces are sometimes cast in such darkness that they’re hard to make out. For a study of degenerative hedonism, there’s not a spec of fun on offer, except when Holmes and Dawn impulsively and repeatedly have sex.

Since “Wonderland” isn’t at all about the porn industry, there are few direct comparisons to be made to “Boogie Nights,” which centered on the Holmesian figure of Dirk Diggler. But the differences between the two films in ambition and accomplishment will certainly be noted, and not favorably where the new pic is concerned; the textures, mixture of feelings and variety of characters in “Boogie Nights” far surpass anything in this capable but frenetic reconstruction of nasty events.

Holmes provides Kilmer with a sort of companion piece to his characterization of another true-life drug-drenched sex-god rebel, Jim Morrison. To anyone who remembers the normally pallid and unemotive Holmes onscreen in his off-duty moments, Kilmer will seem surprisingly energetic, the character’s coke ingestion notwithstanding. At this stage in his life, at least, Holmes comes off as an anxious opportunist willing to do or say anything to anyone who will help him out of his straits. Never does he seem complex or intriguingly conflicted.

A brown-haired, deglamorized Bosworth is OK as an ostensible sweet young thing who keeps returning to Holmes despite knowing better. Definitely knowing better and long since unwilling to tolerate Holmes’ nonsense is Sharon, whom Kudrow makes almost schoolmarmish in her disapproval of the “whore” she loved years before.

McDermott, Bogosian, Lucas and Nelson all score in their portraits of scum-of-the-earth criminals. The women in their lives remain peripheral and, due to the makeup, costuming and lighting, even the familiar-faced actresses who play some of them — Christina Applegate, Janeane Garofalo and Natasha Gregson Wagner — are all but unrecognizable.

Stylistically, Cox overdoes the hyperventilated images and “Real World”-like overhead transitional cutaways, but pic indisputably gets down and dirty with its subject matter.

Wonderland

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Holly Wiersma/Lions Gate Films production. (International sales: Lions Gate Films Intl., Marina del Rey, Calif.) Produced by Wiersma, Michael Paseornek. Executive producers, Julie Yorn, Peter Kleidman, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Block, Marc Butan, Michael Burns. Co-producers, Ali Forman, Scott Putnam. Directed by James Cox. Screenplay, Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, D. Loriston Scott.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael Grady; editor, Jeff McEvoy; music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; art director, John Zachary; set decorator, Jason Howard; costume designer, Kate Healey; sound, Steve Morrow; sound designers, Brian Emrich, Mark Binder; assistant director, Luke Scully; casting, Barbara Fiorentino. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 9, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time (without end credits): 99 MIN.

With

John Holmes - Val Kilmer Dawn Schiller - Kate Bosworth Sharon Holmes - Lisa Kudrow Ron Launius - Josh Lucas Billy Deverell - Tim Blake Nelson David Lind - Dylan McDermott Susan Launius - Christina Applegate Eddie Nash - Eric Bogosian Sally Hansen - Carrie Fisher Louis Cruz - Franky G. Bill Ward - M.C. Gainey Joy Miller - Janeane Garofalo Sam Nico - Ted Levine Greg Diles - Faizon Love Barbara Richardson - Natasha Gregson Wagner
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