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Sympathy for the devil

Although it has a delectable cast, 'Wonderland' skims over its seedy characters to glamorize drug addiction and the role porn star John C. Holmes had in four murders.

October 03, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

The late porn star John C. Holmes was known for exactly one thing -- one freakishly big thing. That big thing made him famous during the 1970s and, from the evidence of his pathetic rise and fall, it's what made him believe he could beat the odds. He ratted on his peers in the skin trade, pimped and beat his underage girlfriend, and was implicated in one of L.A.'s most notorious murders. But Holmes seems to have thought he had been given a non-expiring Get Out of Jail Free card. For him, biology really was destiny.

Young filmmaker James Cox seems to think so too. In his relentlessly unpleasant, fact-laced account of the Wonderland killings, Cox zooms in on the porn star -- played with dank charisma by Val Kilmer -- after the party known as the 1970s had ended. Disco would soon be dead; Holmes' fame already was.

By 1981, the year the movie opens, he was riding a downward spiral, energetically flushing his life down the toilet. A stone-cold junkie on an endless hustle, he hung around creeps like Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), a midlevel drug dealer, and begged lines off hustling scum like Ron Launius (Josh Lucas). Holmes was scrapping bottom so hard it affected his sense: He thought he could steal from the likes of Nash and Launius without paying the price.

Holmes paid some kind of price and others paid far more. On July 1, 1981, at a Wonderland Avenue house tucked in Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles police discovered the bodies of two men and two women who had been bludgeoned to death with lead pipes. Another woman, Barbara Richardson (Natasha Gregson Wagner), survived the frenzied violence -- carefully re-created in the film, crack by sickening crack -- but her memory did not. Yet while Richardson was left in the dark, the police weren't. They knew, for one, that Holmes was somehow involved because he had left a handprint at the scene. He had played a role in what was soon dubbed the "four-on-the-floor" killings -- the question was whether he had performed as a star or an extra.

Part police procedural, part sleaze-sideshow, "Wonderland" lays out a few bloody scenarios, suggesting the ways Holmes might have been involved. It's public knowledge that Holmes was arrested in connection with the killings and, after refusing to say what went down, was eventually acquitted. Whether he swung a lead pipe remains unclear, but it's indisputable that his silence helped shroud the crime in mystery.

That's moderately interesting, mostly for the victims' families, the detectives who worked the case, true-crime aficionados and those who take Holmes seriously as an X-rated icon or a paragon of 1970s kitsch. But it doesn't explain why the movie, which was written by Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott, and purports to be based on the true story of the Wonderland killings, goes so easy on Holmes.

The film's turgid style suggests one answer. A meaningless riot of angles, edits, textures and zippy camera moves, this is the latest addition to a new type of drug movie -- one that exploits addiction for a lot of self-adoring showboating. Like Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") and Jonas Akerlund ("Spun"), both of whom went slumming in junkie-land to similar effect, Cox isn't interested in his characters; what really turns him on is the spectacle of getting high. Cox gets off on his own visual pyrotechnics, and he wants us to get off on them too. Certainly, his talented cast, which does a lot of screaming in hot pants and biker beards, digs the manic jolts. Given that Cox evinces no interest in the wretched lows of addiction it's not like the performers have any other choice.

Of course, it's hard to show off what you learned in film school when your characters are drooling for hours on end or desperately searching for that last good vein. It's also hard to make the audience care. Maybe Cox knows this or maybe he couldn't have gotten "Wonderland" made if he'd shown how deeply ugly Holmes' life had become.

Whatever the reason, Cox doesn't just succumb to the spurious glamour of Holmes' fall; he laps it up. In "Boogie Nights," Paul Thomas Anderson mythologized Holmes and created a cautionary tale about the perils of buying your own hustle. It wasn't Holmes that Anderson celebrated, it was the absurd optimism that made this guy whip out a ruler and decide he could be a star. Unlike Cox, Anderson took Holmes' "one special thing" and transformed it into something far bigger.

*

'WONDERLAND'

MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, grisly images, pervasive drug use and language, some sexualiy/nudity

Times guidelines: Some sex, lots of drugs and extremely savage violence

Val Kilmer...John Holmes

Lisa Kudrow...Sharon Holmes

Kate Bosworth...Dawn Schiller

Dylan McDermott...David Lind

Josh Lucas...Ron Launius

A Holly Wiersma/Lions Gate Films production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director James Cox. Writers James Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, D. Loriston Scott. Producers Holly Wiersma, Michael Paseornek. Director of photography Michael Grady. Production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone. Costume designers Maryam Malakpour, Kate Healey, Editor Jeff McEvoy. Music Cliff Martinez. Music supervisors Matt Aberle, David Falzone, Joel C. High. Casting Barbara Fiorentino, Rebecca Mangieri. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Exclusively at the Arclight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood (323) 464-4226; Pacific's the Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, L.A. (323) 692-0829; and Laemmle's Monica, 1332 Second Street, Santa Monica (310) 394-9741.

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