Ebert: Rolling Stone: TV Guide:
Warning, minor plot points revealed!
Remember the scene near the end of Boogie Nights when Dirk and his friends try to rob the drug dealer? That was Paul Thomas Anderson's somewhat light hearted version of the Wonderland murders. Now imagine that scene from Boogie Nights with lots of blood and violence and told from many different perspectives in sort of a non-temporal Rashomon chronology. That is basically the story (or stories) presented in Wonderland. An early 80's drug induced robbery that ended in a bloody massacre and included as one of it's key players the King of Porn - John Holmes.
I liked this movie. It's one of those dirty late 70's early 80's drug culture films that really give you a feeling of what it was probably like at the time. The only thing I didn't really like about the movie was the choice of actors. Besides Val Kilmer, who does an excellent job as the post-porn pre-AIDS drug addict Holmes, the rest of the players were horribly miscast.
No matter what version of events you believe, the main story went something like this: It's the early 80's, ex porn star John Holmes is now heavily addicted to cocaine and cruising around from score to score with his teenage girlfriend. One night as his druggy friends sit around scheming their next robbery, Holmes mentions that an acquaintance of his is Eddie Nash, a nightclub owner, who keeps a lot of money and drugs in his house. The crew then breaks into Nash's house and robs him at gunpoint. Holmes soon after pays a visit to Nash's house and is beaten until he tells Nash who it was that robbed him. Holmes then may or may not have helped Nash's bodyguards go to the house at Wonderland Ave. where the robbery crew lived and bash them to death with lead pipes.
The gritty reality of the film is what makes it fun to watch. You almost feel dirty after watching it and the bloodbath climax at the end is especially brutal. The Rashomon story telling method is also interesting because it overlaps with itself kind of like Pulp Fiction rather than telling the same story from beginning to end over and over.
As I said above the casting choices for the film were questionable. Val Kilmer is perfect as John Holmes. He becomes the character in much the same way he perfectly morphed into Jim Morrison in The Doors. The only other casting that was at all believable was Ted Levine as the police detective and the only reason this worked was because I have come to accept him in that role from watching the TV show Monk.
The rest of the roles are filled out by decent actors in roles that they just can't make believable. Lisa Kudrow and Kate Bosworth play Holmes wife and girlfriend. The characters are interesting because they seem to have an almost mother-daughter relationship even though they are both tied to Holmes. The problem is Kudrow is Phoebe Buffay from the nice clean TV show Friends. It is almost impossible to take her seriously as the bitter but understanding wife of porn star John Holmes. She's Phoebe! And Bosworth may be becoming a star but as far as I'm concerned she is the squeaky clean little surfer girl in the film Blue Crush and no amount of make-up, clothes or 70's hairstyle is going to make me believe she is the teenage burn-out drug addicted lover of John Holmes. Dylan McDermott, the super handsome Bobby Donnell on the TV show The Practice, is supposed to be this filthy violent ex-con biker drug addict who is one of the survivors of the robbery and subsequent massacre. McDermott is in no way believable in this role. He's just too much of a pretty-boy in real life. Kind of like the leader of the robbery gang who is played by Josh Lucas who is also a pretty-boy and remembered best for his role as the handsome down home love interest of Reese Witherspoon in last year's Sweet Home Alabama. Having these two put on dirty jeans, telling them not to shave for a week and drawing a couple tats on their arms does not make them into fearsome drug addicted tough guys. And finally Eric Bogosian is OK as the Middle Eastern (?) club owner/gangster who the dirtied up pretty-boys rob, but he is also playing a role that is way out of character for him.
There's a few cameo appearances by Carrie Fisher, Christina Applegate, and Janeane Garofalo but they are completely underused (except for Fisher who's at least has a few funny lines at the beginning of the film.) I believe that the way to best improve this movie would have been to surround Kilmer with a cast of entirely unknown actors. This would have allowed you to take their characters more seriously instead of just sitting there and thinking, "Hey! That's Phoebe!"
I recommend Wonderland as a rental. It's probably already left your theatre, if it ever got there, so I suppose that's the only way anyone is going to see it anyway. It's worth watching just because Val is great and the story is interesting and entertaining.