On the night of July 1st 1981, four people were murdered at 8763 Wonderland Avenue, in the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles. The victims were beaten to death with steel pipes and the crime scene was such a bloodbath, detectives compared it to the Manson Family massacre of 1969. It was a revenge hit, ordered by gangster Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), retaliation for an armed robbery on his home carried out by two of the victims, Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson). A third member of the gang, David Lind (Dylan McDermott) wasn't present and it was his statement to the police that revealed the involvement of none other than John Holmes (Val Kilmer), the legendary porn star.
In the 1970s, Holmes's freakishly large penis had landed him a successful career in the adult film industry. By 1981 however, he was a drug addict who hadn't worked in two years. He was flat broke and reduced to supporting himself and his teenage girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) by sponging off his ex-wife (Lisa Kudrow). Holmes was such a notorious deadbeat that Ron Launius was the only drug dealer who would supply him and that was only because Launius liked introducing him at parties. Another criminal who kept the porn star around for novelty value was Eddie Nash, a Palestinian immigrant whose racketeering had bought him a chain of nightclubs. One day, while stoned, Holmes told Launius, Lind and Deverell about the large quantities of money and drugs Nash kept in his house and inadvertantly set into motion the chain of events that led to what the press would call "the four on the floor killings".
If you've seen Boogie Nights, you'll remember the virtuoso sequence where Dirk Diggler and his associates try to double-cross the coked-up, Rick Springfield-loving drug dealer Rahad Jackson. This was a condensed version of the events above. Diggler was of course inspired by John Holmes and Jackson was modelled on the hard-partying Eddie Nash. Wonderland tells the true story, or at least attempts to tell it. Holmes and Lind told conflicting stories and since Holmes died of AIDS in 1988, no one knows for sure how deeply he was involved in setting up the robbery or in facilitating Nash's revenge. James Cox, Wonderland's director and co-writer deals with this ambiguity by telling the story in flashback, through the eyes of different participants, including Holmes, Lind, Holmes's ex-wife Carol and his girlfriend Dawn. It's a technique that works, albeit a familiar one, most commonly associated with Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, Rashômon and copied by many a crime drama. Cox's directing style also owes more than a little to Martin Scorsese's work, particularly the final act of Goodfellas.
The crime story, while lurid and unpleasant, is completely fascinating. Like Larry Clark's Bully, Wonderland captures the mundane reality of crime and the brutish stupidity of people who devote their lives to it. Cox leaves in the kind of ridiculous details that somehow add credibility while at the same time making you shake your head in disbelief, like how many attempts it took Holmes to perform the simple task of leaving a kitchen door open. The most amazing piece of information in the film is left for the text at the end which tells us what became of the characters. The paragraph on Eddie Nash does not say much for Los Angeles' legal system.
There's more to Wonderland than true crime lore. It's also a strong and extremely well-acted character study, graced with one of the best casts you'll see this year. It's good to see Val Kilmer's career getting back on track. He's always been a brilliant character actor, able to virtually disappear into parts like Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Following a misguided attempt to be a Tom Cruise-type leading man, he's returned to real acting roles and his performance as John Holmes is one of his best. As Kilmer plays him, Holmes is a pathetically weak and selfish man whose only gift, besides his oversized genitalia, is his ability to manipulate people, chiefly his ex-wife and his girlfriend. In a film about four horrific murders, the most shocking scene is an almost irrelevant flashback involving Kilmer and Kate Bosworth, which demonstrates the extent to which Holmes was prepared to use the people he loved.
Bosworth is the revelation of the film. She's just as good as Kilmer, giving depth and humanity to a character who might otherwise be dismissed as a naive bimbo. Watching Wonderland a couple of weeks after the sweet romantic comedy, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, it's difficult to believe you're watching the same actress. Her career will be worth keeping an eye on. Lisa Kudrow is also excellent as a worldly woman who sees in Bosworth's character herself at a younger age and tries to keep her away from Holmes. It's the first time I've ever been able to watch Kudrow and not see Phoebe from Friends. There are fine performances too from Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas and Tim Blake Nelson as the Wonderland gang. These are three actors you wouldn't immediately think of for bad-guy criminals but they're completely effective. Only Eric Bogosian seems miscast as the Arab gangster Eddie Nash, although perhaps he just pales in comparison with Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights. And it's a little odd to see name actors like Janeane Garofalo and Christina Applegate in walk-on parts that might as well have been given to extras.