Saturday 29 January 2022

Movie Review: Wonderland (2003)

A crime drama inspired by real events, Wonderland spends all its time with sordid characters, offering unsatisfactory story fragments and an overabundance of style.

It's 1981 in Los Angeles, and former porn star John Holmes (Val Kilmer) is scraping a living by drifting around drug dealers. His girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) stands by her man despite his abrupt and unexplained absences. After scoring some drugs, John returns to their motel room in an agitated state. The next morning the media reports four people have been murdered at a known drug house on Wonderland Avenue.

One of the victims is the girlfriend of drug dealer David Lind (Dylan McDermott). He reveals to the police the murders were retaliation by goons working for crime lord Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), because the victims had earlier robbed Nash's house. Lind claims Holmes was involved in both the original robbery and the revenge murders. Holmes is arrested; he has a different version of events, while his estranged wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) tries to remain uninvolved.

The strongest emotion elicited by watching Wonderland is the overwhelming need to take a shower. With the marginal exception of Sharon, director and co-writer David Cox populates his film with sleazoids, slimeballs, and losers. Whether any of them live or die is of little relevance, as none of them are provided with meaningful depth, backstory, or empathetic attributes. 

The possible involvement of an ex-porn star provides a dose of notoriety for a case of irrelevant bad guys killing other irrelevant bad guys, but the extent of Holmes' guilt or innocence never registers as a compelling dramatic hinge. The witless plot zooms in from multiple perspectives on events immediately before and after the robbery and subsequent murders, in a case of opposing unreliable narratives colliding into a stalemate. With nothing settled at the end of 104 minutes, walls of postscript text attempt to fill in the blanks but only confirm the lack of focus. 

Lind and Holmes are brought to life in suitably grungy performances by Dylan McDermott and Val Kilmer, but they are far from eliciting sympathy. Kate Bosworth is also invested in Dawn, but can do little with the prototypical character of a naive young woman unaware of the sewer she's in. Lisa Kudrow allows Sharon to rise above, the only character aware of the stink and moving in the other direction.

In the absence of meaningful arcs and substance, Cox defaults to layering on the style, and at least Wonderland offers challenging visuals and an artistically attractive interpretation of ripped-from-the-headlines. The images pop, but the story lacks wonder.

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