Lionsgate // 2003 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 4th, 2010
The true story of L.A.'s most gruesome murders.
"It's only the beginning, baby. L.A. in the summer and anything could happen, right?"
The year is 1981. Four people have just been brutally murdered on Wonderland Avenue in Los Angeles. As police begin to investigate the so-called "Wonderland Murders," an eclectic variety of names start popping up in connection with the case. One of the most surprising names is John Holmes (Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), the famous porn star. Well, at least he used to be a famous porn star. These days he's little more than a notorious junkie, spending every last dollar he gets on drugs and attempting to maintain some semblance of a relationship with his girlfriend Dawn (Kate Bosworth, Beyond the Sea). The police hear two in-depth accounts of how the murders went down: one from a small-time crook named David Lind (Dylan McDermott, In the Line of Fire) and one from Holmes himself. The truth is lying somewhere between the lines.
It's a bit difficult to really give Wonderland the sort of fair evaluation that it deserves. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, any film about John Holmes will inevitably be compared to Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful Boogie Nights, which gives Holmes and other figures in his life different names but essentially tells his life story. Second, Wonderland is intentionally a thoroughly unpleasant experience filled with stupid, scummy, heartless characters involving themselves in one deeply miserable situation after another. Director James Cox (Highway) attempts to bury the viewer in a living hell, and it works...but as a result, the viewing experience is one many will simply want to escape from.
Were the film a genuinely bold, original, uncompromising cinematic outing I think I would have been able to tolerate the miseries of the experience due to the knowledge that I was witnessing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, the oppressive atmosphere of the film only feels worse when you realize Wonderland is a clichéd, recycled true-crime drama. The film could have been a compelling documentary-style account of a famous murder, but its Rashomon-inspired structure, its nervous aversion to hard facts and its jumpy tendency to leap into flashbacks and flash-forwards constantly make the whole film an inconclusive muddle. In the end, the only conclusive thing we've learned is that the whole situation was a chaotic mess somehow fueled by drugs, money and rage, which really isn't that revealing.
Part of what makes the film such a frustrating experience is that it's essentially a study of John Holmes that really has no interest in revealing much about him. The film is more intrigued by what Holmes may or may not have done in connection to the Wonderland Murders than in what drove him to this extremely low point in his life. Despite a valiant performance by Val Kilmer (certainly not a very flattering one for the actor), we're always looking at Holmes from the outside. He and his cohorts in the film are merely chess pieces on the film's board. Holmes is addicted to drugs and he's constantly looking for more drugs. That's pretty much everything you're going to get from Wonderland. And while the scenes depicting Holmes and others plotting and carrying out a heist are handled well enough for what they're trying to do, even these moments don't come close to the nervous tension of the scene in Alfred Molina's house in Boogie Nights.
What's really remarkable is the way the film wastes a hugely talented cast. Capable folks such as Carrie Fisher (Star Wars), Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men), M.C. Gainey (Lost), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Two Girls and a Guy), Josh Lucas (Hulk), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), Tim Blake Nelson (Minority Report), Christina Applegate (Samantha Who?), Faizon Love (Couples Retreat), and Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) are onhand (along with a few not-so-capable folks like Paris Hilton), but most of them don't get anything particularly interesting to do. They're simply there, wandering in, delivering their lines and making their exit.
It can be a little tricky to judge the 1080p/1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer, as Cox's visuals are loaded with all kinds of intentionally ugly tidbits. Some scenes are super-grainy, others are extremely desaturated, many scenes are washed in a puke-ish yellow/orange/green/red haze and so on. However, there are scenes from time to time that look relatively normal, and these moments are sharp and crystal-clear. They're also a good reference point for the work done on the rest of the disc, as we can rest assured that the ugly-looking imagery is intended by the filmmakers and isn't due to poor work on the part of the folks at Lionsgate. Audio is solid enough, with a collection of relatively well-known tunes of the era blend with an oppressively bland Cliff Martinez score. The track really excels in terms of sound design, as the moments of frenzy and chaos (and there are plenty, believe me) are really immersive and suffocating...
All of the supplements are ported over from the DVD release: a commentary with Cox and co-writer Captain Mauzner, a feature-length documentary on the life of John Holmes entitled "Wadd: The Life and Times of John Holmes," 23 minutes of brutal LAPD crime scene footage, a 5-minute "Hollywood at Large: Court TV" piece focusing on Dawn Schiller, 10 minutes of deleted scenes and 4 minutes of cast interviews. The best option is the feature-length documentary. Though it's presented in lowly standard-def, it's a more informative and compelling study of Holmes' life than Wonderland.
The bright spot in the film is Lisa Kudrow (Friends) as Holmes' estranged wife Sharon. Kudrow provides us with one of the only nuanced characterizations in the film, essaying a woman who has moved on with her life but still feels some measure of pity for her broken ex. Her scenes are without question the film's most resonant.
I wish I could be more admiring of Wonderland than I am, but the fact of the matter is that the film is simply too tedious to be worth the effort. Fans of the film should know that the Blu-ray release is solid all the way around.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Crime Scene Footage
* Court TV segment
* Deleted Scenes