If you lie down with dogs, you've got to expect to get up with fleas. And when you go to a movie about a coked-out former porn star who was implicated in the grisly murders of four lowlife drug-dealers -- a case which remains "officially" unsolved to this day -- well, you'd better figure on a full medicated bath afterwards because a flea collar just ain't going to do it.
In fact, a shower is exactly what you'll want to take after watching Wonderland, a fact-based crime drama about the brutal 1981 slaying of four people who were bludgeoned to death inside a home on Wonderland Avenue in a well-to-do section of Los Angeles. (Given the LaLa Land setting, the title is obviously a play on words -- and worlds). Adult film star John Holmes (Val Kilmer), the king of 1970s porn flicks, was suspected in the murders and, while he was eventually charged (which occurs after the film ends and is alluded to merely in a postscript), he was also acquitted.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 film Boogie Nights might seem the obvious comparison (the fictional character of Dirk Diggler in that picture was loosely based on Holmes), but Wonderland is not interested in the big man's porn activities. Rather, it focuses on the murders and the events leading up to them.
The film opens after Holmes' "acting" career has ended. A coke addict and petty criminal, he has burned most of his friends but is never above hatching one more plot. Hoping to share in the spoils, he tells scumbag Ron Lanius (Josh Lucas, once again an unnervingly convincing hedonist and sociopath) about a stash of drugs and money that reptilian drug dealer Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), another Holmes associate, has hidden in his house. With his partners in crime Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson) and biker David Lind (an unrecognizable Dylan McDermott in a nice change of pace for him), Lanius stages a home invasion.
The cocky Lanius makes the mistake of humiliating but not killing Nash, and it doesn't take Eddie long to get Holmes to rat out his friends. Whether Holmes joined in the revenge killings of Lanius, Deverell and two women (Lind wasn't home at the time) could never be proven.
Director and co-writer James Cox goes for a highly stylized look: hyperactive handheld camera, quick cuts, split screens, blown-out whites and a preponderance of in-your-face close-ups shot from every conceivable angle. There is a dishwater brown tint to the film, which has been shot and/or processed to give it a grainy, textured look. It's so treated it looks fake. Certain scenes play out as if shot under a strobe black light -- dark, indistinct, slightly hallucinatory. The violence is visceral and graphic.
Cox's approach to the material is understandable; he wants to convey the moral ugliness of this world and the hopped-up frenzy of its permanently high inhabitants. But while this may be exactly the way to tell the story, at times it feels as if Cox is just showing off what he can do: lots of style but not much else. One thing is certain: He has carried off his particular vision with aplomb.
The problem is that the characters are such creepy, despicable vermin that you can't connect with any of them (not even Lisa Kudrow, who does a nice turn as Holmes' estranged wife, or a dark-haired Kate Bosworth as his girlfriend). As good as all of the actors are -- Kilmer excels at just this sort of scuzzy creature -- they are basically given just one dimension to play. Some people really are that irredeemable, of course, but presenting a story in which the viewer ends up recoiling from (or being completely indifferent to) everybody makes for a flat film. Not that psychological insight would redeem any of these sleazeballs, but it might help the viewer get drawn into their story, much as audiences were able to see the characters in Boogie Nights as flawed, morally questionable, even pathetic -- but nonetheless real -- people.