Thursday, October 23, 2003

Half a staff

Movie: Wonderland

Posted on Thu, Oct 23, 2003 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

What looks like another expertly wrought performance by Val Kilmer struggles to break through the conceptual chaos of "Wonderland," a jumbled dramatization of the most violent episode in the checkered career of porn legend John Holmes. Resummoning the neo-hippie swagger of his Jim Morrison and then walking it down a sycophantic side street, Kilmer offers a suitably oily portrayal of the adult-movie king as a soulless camp follower living off drugs and deceit.

But the movie doesn't commit to being about Holmes, any more than it can be said to be "aboutÃ? any of the other Left Coast scumbags who played a part in the infamous Wonderland Avenue bloodbath of 1981 -- a night of atrocity that director/co-writer James Cox recounts from several conflicting perspectives. It's the Rashomon structure, and it wreaks havoc with Kilmer's efforts to sustain a star turn. Oh well. At least it prolongs our involvement in a mystery that often seems determined to short-circuit itself.

No one can say for sure how involved Holmes was in the murder of four people who, like him, were neck-deep in L.A.'s narcotized underworld. Just about everyone agrees that he was a knowing participant in the crime -- the final skull-crushing volley in a game of robbery and intimidation that tainted two already-filthy households. Part of the fun of Cox's movie is listening to the survivors describe that fateful turn of events, contradicting each other on key details that are then acted out for our amusement.

But to enjoy the narrative remixing, you have to cut through an awful lot of postproduction hooey. Just name the show-offy contrivance, and it's here: fast motion, slow motion, animated maps, still frames, bleached film stock, and worst of all, those damned moving split-screens, in which complementary scene snippets pass each other like commuter trains moving in opposite directions. What does it say when the edgiest technique in modern crime drama is to recall the opening credits of "Kojak?"

Then again, maybe those vulgarities are in there to distract us from the movie's other shortcomings. Dylan McDermott's role as a dubious eyewitness is undercut by a fake beard that's as ludicrous as anything you'll see at your doorstep this Halloween, while Eric Bogosian applies an equally bogus Middle Eastern accent to the role of Eddie Nash, the feared nightclub owner who was the main target of the Wonderland hit. Janeane Garofalo manages to lobby for a Razzie with her brief but absurd impersonation of a jonesing addict. Who knew Hollywood stars could sound so unconvincing crying out for dope?

Particularly irksome is Cox's use of latter-day FM hits as running commentary. Knowing that Bad Company sang about a "JohnnyÃ? who lived the life of a shooting star seems to be the filmmaker's idea of eerie soundtrack kismet. Of course, Johnny also made a record that went straight up to Number One, which is only like having a 13-inch penis if you think about it for a really, really long time.

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