104 mins, releases nationally 29 January 2004
This Wonderland is not to be confused with the 1999 film of the same
name, directed by talented British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. That
Wonderland was a far superior film.
This Wonderland is directed by young filmmaker James Cox, who's fresh
out of New York University film school. In fact, the director and the
screenwriters are all relatively young and inexperienced. They favour a
fast-paced, non-linear, MTV-influenced visual and narrative style. It
is energetic and exciting, and gives the film a breathless excitement
that suits the subject-matter. So Wonderland is expertly made from a
technical standpoint, but in the end style triumphs over substance.
For example, there is a fascinating cast, but most of the talent is
wasted – and unrecognisable. I watched the whole film without
recognising Dylan McDermott (Bobby Donnell, the defence lawyer from
TV’s The Practice) and Tim Blake Nelson (from the Coen brothers’ Oh
Brother, Where Art Thou?). I still can’t work out where Janeane
Garofalo (from The Truth about Cats and Dogs and TV’s The Larry Sanders
Show) was. As for Carrie Fisher (from the original Star Wars trilogy),
So Cox has a dream cast, and he wastes them. But maybe that’s
appropriate, because most of the characters are “wasted” most of the
time. You see, this is a Drug Film. It is also extremely violent.
The story revolves around real multiple murders that took place in an
apartment on Wonderland Avenue, in Laurel Canyon (itself the subject of
a recent film, Laurel Canyon, by Lisa Cholodenko). The apartment was
the lair of drug dealers and the murder was horrific. When it is not
revelling in the grisliness of the crime – which seems to be some kind
of payback for a robbery by the drug dealers on an underworld kingpin –
the film focuses on the possible involvement of John Holmes. Holmes was
a real life porn star (aka “the King of Porn” and “Johnny Wadd”) who
enjoyed some time at the top of his profession and then descended into
a drug-riddled spiral.
The press materials describe Wonderland as exploring “in Rashomon-like
fashion” these brutal murders. Rashomon was the 1950 breakthrough film
of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa. It electrified audiences at
the 1951 Venice Film Festival. It examines an ambush, rape and murder
from the viewpoints of various witnesses. The events surrounding the
crime are examined and re-examined, each time reflecting the differing
perceptions of each witness. In doing this, Kurosawa was asking the
question “What is Truth?” Rashomon is fascinating especially for
lawyers, who know only too well the different stories that witnesses
(and clients) can tell about the same incident.
Unfortunately, in Wonderland, the characters are so unlikeable, so
drug-addled, and their constant drug-taking is so boring, that the
answer to “What is truth?” is “Who cares?” And many will find it
distressing to watch such a violent multiple murder over and over
again. Kurosawa was much more circumspect about showing the detail of
On the up side, Val Kilmer does make a charismatic John Holmes. But we
never get to see him in his prime, which could have been fun. Instead,
it is all downhill for Johnny Wadd.
The other actor who makes a real impression is Lisa Kudrow (from The
Opposite of Sex and TV’s Friends), as Sharon Holmes. The film brightens
when she is on screen – perhaps because she’s the only character who’s
not caught up in drugs or crime.
The film’s soundtrack is packed with pop and rock songs from the 80s,
but they are chosen with a heavy hand. For example, when one character
says: “Bobby was a good ole boy”, the country and western music cranks
up. It’s blindingly obvious.
We’ve been in this territory before. Boogie Nights (PT Anderson, 1997)
dealt with the porn industry in LA in the 1970s, and somehow managed to
do so in a light and innocent way, with much humour. Its lead character
was a kind of fictional John Holmes. Blow (Ted Demme, 2001) covered the
excesses of the drug scene in the 1970s. That was a tough film, but not
without interest, especially as a historical document. It was worth
watching for the fashions alone. But in Wonderland, everyone is dreary
and strung out or high. The writers hoped to elevate it into some sort
of neo-Film Noir with a strange love triangle on the side. But for me,
it was just a confusing and repetitious story about a horrible crime
committed by, and on, people that I didn’t care about.