Sunday, October 31, 2010

New on Blu: "Wonderland"

Perhaps the most damning but accurate charge that can be lobbed at James Cox’s Wonderland is that it’s no Boogie Nights. For most movies, that’s not a big deal; Casablanca is no Boogie Nights, and that doesn’t hurt it a bit. But Wonderland is dealing with what amount to the same characters and themes as Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 masterpiece, and it suffers in comparison even while it is closer to fact (and more sensationalistic in nature).

Anderson’s film told the story of the rise and fall of “Dirk Diggler,” a 70s-era porn star with an extraordinarily oversize appendage, a character clearly based upon adult film legend John Holmes. A scarily visceral moment of that character’s fall is his involvement in the ill-advised robbery of a murky underworld figure; the odd, funny, scary sequence finds Dirk and his jittery friends suffering through an awkward “partying” session with the coked-out, open-robed Rahad Jackson (a bug-eyed Alfred Molina) that degenerates into gunshots and bloodshed. On his audio commentary, Anderson says that the scene was influenced by Holmes’s involvement in the so-called “Wonderland murders,” but only by his vague recollections of it—by fictionalizing the character and the incident, he was free to create the scene that worked best for his narrative.

Cox and his co-writer Captain Mauzner are telling the real story, however, using real names and real crimes, but try to do it with the same kind of visual pizzaz that Anderson uses—ironic music, flashy camera moves, jazzy split-screen. Wonderland wants badly to be Boogie Nights, but its broad attempts to ape that film’s energy and style are among its weakest elements. It works when it breaks out of its surface story and drills deeper into the psychology of its complicated characters.

Chief among them is Holmes, played by a terrific Val Kilmer. Wonderland came out in 2003, when the actor’s slide from the Hollywood A-list was underway; I’m not sure exactly why he went from fronting major movies to straight-to-disc 50 Cent vehicles, but he’s still capable of doing good work, as he proves in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and here. Though cast as a legend, the entirety of Wonderland plays out in 1981, when, as the opening text informs us, “the legend was over.” Holmes could no longer get work in the industry, having burned bridges with his coke addiction and (probably related) frequent inability to, um, perform. He spent his days searching for coke and running errands for dealers, who would occasionally have him trot out his big dick for guests, like some kind of a party trick. Kilmer captures the man’s high-strung, snorted-up exhaustion—the empty eyes of true desperation. It’s that desperation that got him into the entire Wonderland mess, a somewhat complex double-cross in which he helped a crew of small-time dealers and thieves knock off nightclub owner Eddie Nash (a chilling Eric Bogosian), who in turn got Holmes (probably by force, though there are theories suggesting otherwise) to lead his crew of thugs to the home the theives shared on Wonderland Avenue. The men were armed with lead pipes. They killed four people, and left a fifth for dead.

Most agree that Holmes was probably there, though the degree of his involvement in the actual murders is unclear. The truth of exactly what happened, both at the Wonderland home and in the crimes leading up to it, is often hard to pin down when the stories are being told by shifty characters like these. Cox wisely utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative structure, contrasting the story as told by Holmes with that of David Lind (Dylan McDermott), a member of the target gang who chanced to be out when the murders took place. Then, as the story draws to a close, Cox engages in a bit of perspective trickery to show the most probable version—a grisly, horrifying recreation of the crime.

The film assembles a terrific supporting cast—Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Josh Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Faison Love—even if some of them (particularly Janeane Garafalo and Christina Applegate) are barely utilized. But the actors that shine brightest are Kate Bosworth, as Holmes’s underage girlfriend Dawn Schiller, and a Lisa Kudrow as his estranged first wife Sharon. The film is most compelling when it burrows into the intriguing psychology this love triangle—Holmes and his wife had long since grown apart romantically, but she is, almost reflexively, still a caretaker to him, exasperated but fearful for his future. With Dawn, she is impatient but protective and certainly empathetic (“You’ve got to get away from him, baby,” she says, giving the only advice she seems absolutely certain of). Both actresses are spot-on; Kudrow marvelously understated in her seen-it-all weariness, Bosworth right on the cusp of innocence and total corruption. And both bring out the best in Kilmer, even when he’s alone on-screen—as in a scene where he sends her in to Eddie Nash, prostituting her to pay off his debt, and then waits out in the car, the camera cutting back during their encounter to his anguish. John Holmes may have done bad things, as we see in Wonderland, but he was still capable of real emotion. Which is why what he did to those five people is all the more inexplicable.

Wonderland tells a compelling story well, even if its attempts at flamboyant style and show-off filmmaking are too reminiscent of Boogie Nights, its clear inspiration. But when it focuses on characters rather than tricks, when it digs into the complicated psychosis of its large cast of desperate characters, it finds its own, fascinating storytelling groove.

"Wonderland" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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