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Curiouser and Curiouser 

Wrong turns on the road to Wonderland

Thursday, Oct 2 2003
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On the night of July 1, 1981, four people — at least three of them drug dealers — were bludgeoned to death (and a fifth nearly so) in a Laurel Canyon cottage on Wonderland Avenue. By the time the blood had dried, circumstantial evidence pointed to John C. Holmes, he of the footlong cock and even longer XXX filmography. Holmes’ fingerprints were lifted from the scene, where, at the height of a costly cocaine habit, he had been a frequent visitor. Beyond that, there was Holmes’ acquaintance Adel Nasrallah, the big-time drug kingpin whose self-reinvention as the L.A. nightclub impresario/restaurateur Eddie Nash rivaled Holmes’ own journey from small-town Ohio boy to San Fernando Valley porn king. And so a theory began to unfold, about how the Wonderland victims had conspired, with Holmes’ aid, to rob his erstwhile friend Eddie Nash. About how Holmes had subsequently confessed to Nash, who promptly ordered the murders. About how Holmes himself had likely been present at the crime scene, acting as the password that gained admission for Nash’s would-be assassins, and possibly even striking one of the fatal blows.

If the above sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because these events and relationships were the inspiration for a key sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, in which Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and Alfred Molina’s speedo-wearing Rahad Jackson stood in, respectively, for Holmes and Nash. And now there is Wonderland, which uses the real names and place names, and which purports to print the facts rather than the legend about Holmes (played here by Val Kilmer), Wonderland Avenue and their fateful crossing.

Directed by James Cox from a screenplay he co-authored with Captain Mauzner (reworking an earlier, unproduced screenplay by Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott), Wonderland is set in the waning days of the much-mythologized Los Angeles of free love, “respectable” strip clubs and daring filmmaking, pornographic and otherwise. Like Boogie Nights, it has been filmed in a style that suggests not so much a snorting-up of the ’70s-era stylizations of so many easy riders and raging bulls, as an injection of them directly into the bloodstream. The movie is all — and in fact, too many — jagged zooms, hazy, undiffused sunlight, and rambling Gordon Lightfoot music. But unlike Boogie Nights (wherein Anderson’s similar fetishization of the period backgrounded a picaresque smorgasbord of indelible dreamers and schemers) or Paul Schrader’s brilliant Auto Focus (which turned the Bob Crane case into a searing study of voyeurism and perversity in America), the vaporous Wonderland never moves beyond its grungily romanticized view of the past.

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In an apparent act of despair over how to structure their film, Cox and the writers have borrowed the old Rashomon device of depicting the same actions multiple times via a series of unreliable narrators — including Holmes (Val Kilmer, giving generously of his talents to the part of a sketched-in, sentimentalized Holmes that we might mistake for some fictionalized version of the real-life Dirk Diggler); his girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth, showing some post–Blue Crush range); and the biker/ex-con David Lind (a nearly scary Dylan McDermott), whose girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner) was one of the Wonderland victims. A host of other interesting actors — Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson and Eric Bogosian (as Nash) among them — flit through, barely registering amid the film’s frenzied, shorthand design. Holmes himself — despite being the impetus for this revisiting of a not-so-mysterious mystery — barely registers, being something of a supporting character in the story of his own calamitous downfall.

Lisa Kudrow, on the other hand, does so much with a few scenes as Holmes’ estranged but dutiful wife Sharon — scenes among the few that are not repeated three and four times — that you wish she’d been allowed to take over and transform the movie into a story of John and Sharon’s fizzled-out marriage. Arriving late in the film, and sharing with Kilmer two extraordinary scenes pregnant with the sting of open emotional wounds, it’s Kudrow, with her deep-set, death-mask sadness, who gives the film what little soul (and realism) it has. As she looks out at Dawn, a younger version of herself, in one of the film’s final scenes, there is the suggestion, spread across every inch of her crooked half-smile, of something more cryptic and unknowable about Sharon Holmes than about any of those body bags on Wonderland Avenue.

WONDERLAND | Directed by JAMES COX | Written by COX, CAPTAIN MAUZNER, TODD SAMOVITZ and D. LORISTON SCOTT | Produced by MICHAEL PASEORNEK and HOLLY WIERSMA | Released by Lions Gate Films | At ArcLight, the Grove and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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