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Val Kilmer in James Cox’s Wonderland: Nothing Human

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James Cox’s Wonderland is about the legendarily endowed ’70s porn star John Holmes‘s uncertain degree of involvement in a multiple murder on Wonderland Avenue in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon in 1981. It has been dismissed even more harshly than In the Cut but I found it resolutely true to the dismal story it tells.

In the Cut has this advantage with audiences: it is at least the kind of movie they like. There’s a heroine and the mystery has an unambiguous solution. Wonderland views Holmes, the victims as well as their killers, and the underworld they all inhabit, from an unbridged remove. Holmes and his baby-faced girlfriend, with their meaningless sweet talk, make the young lovers of Floyd Mutrux’s Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), a junkie movie as strung out as if the camera itself had been shooting up, look like Romeo and Juliet.

Wonderland also avoids the more usual type of romance that you see in Glenn Gordon Caron’s sharply observed Clean and Sober (1988) starring Michael Keaton, the romance of redemption. That bracing movie ends with the hero getting an anniversary chip at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In Wonderland Cox and his co-scenarists Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, and D. Loriston Scott are beyond hoping that Holmes will reform–an apparently unreconstructed Holmes, one who never told all he knew about the Wonderland murders, died in 1988. Neither do they make Holmes a tragic figure, not even an ironic one (despite the title), that is, a protagonist like Richard III whose loathsomeness is at the same time acknowledged as a form of vitality. The movie comes close to this when Holmes sportily evades making a full confession about his part in the killing to the cops, but finally the man, pardon the pun, isn’t big enough for tragedy.

The movie is all downside but for a reason. It does not put forward the AA view that the underlying problem with addiction is spiritual and that anyone honestly seeking recovery can address it. Wonderland isn’t cynical, precisely, it just feels the way you do when someone you know has relapsed again. It becomes settled in your bones that there are better uses for the energy that hope requires.

It gets into the addict’s life on the principle of naturalism, which could be expressed by the line from Terence, “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto” (I am human and consider nothing human to be foreign to me). It doesn’t get lost in its subject like Paul Thomas Anderson’s perspectiveless Boogie Nights (1997) starring Mark Wahlberg, a fictional treatment of Holmes’s XXX career that keeps reminding us porn stars are people and then treating them like symbolic figures in an allegory it hasn’t quite worked out. Cox reacts to the sordid material the way you do when you witness something horrible in public and have no reaction because you’re afraid if you start you won’t be able to control yourself. The movie’s distance is thus tinged with an irony that isn’t sought out but inevitable given this hesitation about the story and characters. Probably the few people who’ve seen Wonderland feel that it’s too resistant to its subject and even more so to what we sometimes think of as the “natural” penchant of American movies to rely on the charm of the subject and actors to lure audiences in, even when this involves cheering on criminal activity (as in F. Gary Gray’s stupid and sleazy Italian Job).

Wonderland is scrupulous in presenting Holmes in a less romanticized light than even a satire would: he’s past his “glory” as a porn star and willing to use and betray absolutely anybody to feed his addiction. It doesn’t make Holmes or the junkie-thieves he hangs out with worse than they were or apply a more fashionable form of irony by shaping their awfulness for comedy. It doesn’t need to make them any worse–it couldn’t–it just trains the camera on them as they sink under their own weight. Still, naturalism doesn’t in itself preclude exhibiting sympathy or warmth for characters. In fact, sympathy is all but implied by naturalism, by a writer such as Zola, for instance, laying out the conditions of urban or rural workers not generally focused on by novelists up to that time. (Though Zola is far from being only a progressive muckraker, an empathizer.) By contrast, and borrowing Wallace Stevens‘s phrasing, Wonderland presents Holmes as the nothing that is not there rather than the nothing that is.

American moviegoers are bound to feel that it’s impossible to give a star performance when the point is to represent the nullity of the lead character’s life. That may count as a fault; we could get a little closer to Holmes, he could loom a little larger, without violating the objectivity the movie wants to preserve. (I am not suggesting it be more like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), which seeks illumination by Al Pacino‘s roman candle of a performance and ends up telling us more about actors than junkies.) Of course, because Holmes is so reprehensible this would push the movie more in the direction of irony but by that very stroke would also help organize the material.

Val Kilmer, however, is not the actor to open up this creepy character in any mode. He seems to perform mainly for his own satisfaction, and to give himself credit for being cleverer than he is. He often acts as if he were too hip to integrate himself fully into the movie he’s in and doesn’t seem at all bothered when the movie is such a mess that there’s nothing to integrate into (e.g., The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) or Masked and Anonymous (2003)–his model would be the Dennis Hopper of Apocalypse Now (1979)). Unfortunately he doesn’t have the serviceable stylized quality that makes Johnny Depp pleasing as a “hip” star. Depp may be no more able than Kilmer to connect to the audience directly, but even in a manic role he’s not grabbing credit. He acknowledges that he’s the director’s creature. Kilmer stays cut off from us and seems egotistical at the same time, as if a hermetic seal were an accomplishment in acting. The best thing about having him play Holmes is that you don’t really want to get closer. You can sit and wait for his life to roll over him. (The movie makes the mistake of lingering on Holmes’s emotion only when he sends his girlfriend in to have sex with his dealer. Holmes isn’t character enough for that, or Kilmer actor.)

The movie functions as open-eyed naturalism even with this gap at its center but could have been more absorbing if Cox had concentrated on how we know what we do about the killings. We gather the details from two sources telling their versions to the police, an intended victim of the hit who hates Holmes and then Holmes himself, and from information later supplied by Holmes’s wife. Cox isn’t a two-fisted con artist like Oliver Stone who shoots one version of an historic episode in a baroque, you-are-there style and still expects us to take it as literal truth. Cox works from varied sources more like a journalist, representing each version in turn while keeping us aware that they’re incompatible. He does go in for expressionism, to get inside a coke buzz or its aftercrash, for instance, but he does it without losing the movie’s interestingly speculative frame of mind.

Still, the competing versions don’t provide enough of a structure. Wonderland falls short of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon (1950), in which four accounts of a rape and murder are re-enacted and we’re faced with the impossibility of deciding among them since none of the witnesses is disinterested. All the versions appear to be off the truth but there’s no metric for determining to what extent.

Cox uses the multiple versions of the crime as a device but it’s not central to the meaning of the movie. Instead it feels inset within the larger, more shapeless, goal of making us feel what a life without prospects beyond extending a high that can’t be extended feels like, the life in that Wonderland that addicts seek and that usually comes to a miserable end, even if not as violently as here. With a criminal plot centered on a robbery pulled off by drug addicts to support their habit, the movie gets at the down-tending irony of addiction, which is that it’s an expensive way of life, the effects of which make you unfit to earn the money it requires. It has swallowed bigger fish than a porn “king.”

I wonder if people have been disappointed because Wonderland is not salacious. In fact, his dealer uses that famous big dick to humiliate Holmes publicly and since he’s a desperate cokehead he takes it and keeps hanging on. The movie is thus purposely unsexy, getting into the druggie’s head after the fun is over but the compulsion is unstoppable. In that respect, it’s probably unsellable in a mass market. (An honest ad campaign would have to boast, All the paranoia and none of the elation of the most popular illegal drugs!)

Maybe even worse from a commercial perspective is the fact there’s no one to root for. Both killers and victims are criminal scum and the only person who has learned anything is Lisa Kudrow as Holmes’s disgusted estranged wife who dropped out of his life before the action starts. Kudrow provides a basis for a critical perspective on the action within the story, just as she did in her marvelous performance in Don Roos’s The Opposite of Sex (1998), but her role is too peripheral for her expert delivery to have the impact it should.

You can’t even root for the decent and competent detectives trying to reconstruct the crime because it would take an effort beyond heroism to figure it out. An effort beyond artistry, for that matter, which may be the moviemakers’ bind. What they can do, however, is depress us honestly. What we see is relentlessly grim and utterly believable, and by presenting such an extreme situation in such a straightforward way the movie does convey something that’s hard to get across using only words: the inevitability of the consequences of a drug addict’s lifestyle.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

About Alan Dale

  • TDavid

    I liked Val Kilmer as Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and he seemed to be a good casting for this movie about John Holmes active life. This movie doesn’t sound like it came out too well, though :(

  • Alan Dale

    Well, I meant to convey the opposite impression. To me The Doors is all hype and no insight. Wonderland accomplishes what it sets out to do, it’s just that what it sets out to do isn’t very movie-ish in the way we’re used to. I liked it for that very quality, though it’s not a perfect movie by any means.

    Thanks for the comment.