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).