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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Life and bad times of Mr. Johnny Wadd


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: James Cox
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

If you drew a line that started at "Goodfellas," and went straight through "Pulp Fiction" and "Boogie Nights," the place it would wind up at is "Wonderland."

News photo
Val Kilmer in "Wonderland" (C)2003 LIONS GATE FILMS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Like its predecessors, "Wonderland" positively wallows in its seedy milieu of gangsters and hustlers, porn stars and cokeheads, while employing a similarly hyperedited style set to a seemingly infinite playlist of period pop songs. You really have to admire any film that can fit Duran Duran, The Stooges, Gordon Lightfoot and Patti Smith all on one soundtrack.

"Wonderland" tells the tale of the king of all 1970s porn stars, John Holmes, whose life already served as the inspiration for the Dirk Diggler character in "Boogie Nights." Fans of that film will recall a scene -- notable for its disconcerting use of indoor fireworks -- where a drug deal-turned-robbery goes very wrong. The actual incident in Holmes' life was much, much worse -- a truly heavy multiple homicide -- and "Wonderland" dives into the mystery surrounding that brutal night in Hollywood in June 1981.

Val Kilmer stars as Holmes, a.k.a. "Johnny Wadd," the man who -- legend has it -- slept with more than 14,000 women and appeared in over 1,000 skin flicks. While "Wonderland" comes across as a hard-boiled crime flick, it's also a fascinating character study, as Holmes was a mess of contradictions.

Kilmer, who already played "lizard king" Jim Morrison in "The Doors," seems the perfect choice here. He exudes the vanity and sexual self-confidence that his looks have always suggested, while also displaying a shifty sense of street smarts. Most surprising is the pathetic, whiny helplessness this superstud turns on to manipulate the women in his life to bail him out of the holes he's dug for himself. Kilmer give us the full spectrum of Holmes' addled emotions, from the times where he's in total self-preservation mode, capable of doing anything to save his skin to the times where he's able to step back, and feel disgust at how much he's hurting those who love him.

Unlike "Boogie Nights," "Wonderland" barely touches on Holmes' glory days, but instead cuts right to his nadir. We first meet him when he arrives to pick up his girlfriend, Dawn (Kate Bosworth, "Blue Crush"), who is staying at the home of a good Samaritan Christian (Carrie Fisher), who picked her up off the street after she was evicted from the motel where Holmes left her. (Which seems like a typical day in the messy life of John Holmes.) We get the bible-lady's POV as Holmes bursts through the door with a demonic intensity, dragging Dawn off to the bathroom where they engage in a flurry of sex and drugs, while the poor lady freaks out.

Cue The Cars' "Let The Good Times Roll," and John and Dawn peel out in his car. "I think we should just be friends till you're 20," suggests Holmes, without much conviction. After one stop at "a friend's place" -- where Dawn sees an object violently hurled through a window -- Holmes takes Dawn to a motel, where they freebase crack, and John leaves on "an errand." When he returns, much later, he's obviously messed up, with blood on his clothes. Dawn notices a TV news report about four people who were killed on Wonderland Avenue -- where they'd stopped earlier that day. It's described as "the most horrific crime scene since Sharon Tate."

The film gives us several radically different views of what happened that evening. The police pick up biker David Lind (Dylan McDermott), whose girlfriend was among those killed. He describes a group of drug dealers and small-time cons who hung around the Wonderland Avenue residence, controlled by the near-psychotic dealer Ron Launius (Josh Lucas, who turns in a scarily intimidating performance). Lind blames the murders on Holmes, who he describes as a shiftless leech, who traded on his stardom to mooch drugs and favors at their parties.

Lind claims that after botching a drug deal, Holmes tried to make amends by setting them up with a lucrative heist; only later did Lind and company learn that their target was the notorious underworld boss Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). After Holmes was dissatisfied with his cut, claims Lind, he then double-crossed them by going to Nash and leading his goons to Deverell's house, where they exacted some bloody revenge.

The cops haul in Holmes, but he glibly paints a different scenario, one which implicates Ron Launius heavily -- who is conveniently one of the dead -- and paints himself as the innocent victim. A final flashback, however, presents a more plausible chain of events, one which Holmes could never admit. The "Rashomon" approach has been getting done to death in recent years, but this is one of those cases where it's justified. Neither Holmes nor Nash were convicted in the murders, but Holmes' former wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) revealed some unsettling details after Holmes' death (from AIDS, in 1988).

Director James Cox displays an advanced mastery of wired filmmaking, ramping up his characters' chaotic lifestyles with the use of rapid-fire editing that mirrors their edgy, coke-fueled paranoia. (A device seen in "Blow," "Spun" and "Boogie Nights.") He's also a master of detail, whether it's the gold chain and silk bathrobe that tells us all we need to know about Eddie Nash, or the use of Paris Hilton in a cameo as a floozy.

A lot of people will look at "Wonderland" and see a film that's almost entirely reprehensible, portraying nasty people doing depraved things. The best response to that is to say: Well, ain't it the truth? Drugs, spoiled celebrity, corrupt cops, mob-controlled nightlife, unpunished murder -- can you think of a better portrait of L.A.?

To rail against this film is to also ignore that it's a tragedy. Kilmer is right on the money as Holmes, winning us over with his charm and easy smile. Holmes is not a hard man -- we get the sense he really cares for Dawn -- but he's a weak man, a careless man, a desperate man and an addict. Kilmer's strength is that he makes us care for this guy, even as we want to join his ex-wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) in telling him what a screw-up he is.

Last, but not least, the film has a razor-sharp sense of black humor, like when the cops are trying to figure out how four people could be beaten to death in a suburban home without anybody noticing. "The neighbors heard loud noises," reports one cop, "but they thought it was some kind of primal scream therapy." Only in Hollywood.

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