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Photograph by Richard Foreman

Whole Wadd World: Val Kilmer plays porn star John Holmes in his bloated years in 'Wonderland.'

Weenie Roast

'Wonderland' decends into hard-core hell

By Richard von Busack

A WINGED MIGRATION-style study of actual weasels--cameras following them around as they mate, fight and stalk chicken coops--might be more satisfying and cheaper to make than films about weasels in human form. In Wonderland, Val Kilmer and a troupe of stunt actors (Lisa Kudrow is the most stunted) enact the decline of porn star John "Johnny Wadd" Holmes, a man as grandly endowed as a conservative think tank. According to the press notes, Holmes had sex "with over 14,000 women in more than 2,000 hard-core films." Maybe Wonderland seemed so minor because it was one of the 700 movies I saw during the course of one day? After his career was over, Holmes was implicated in a quadruple homicide at a party pad at Wonderland Drive in Los Angeles: a four-way lead-pipe bludgeoning thought to be payback for a robbery burglary on a local criminal kingpin. The story was hinted at in Boogie Nights.

Kilmer plays Holmes as a childlike freebaser currently seeing an underage girl, Dawn (Kate Bosworth), though he has unfinished business with his estranged wife (Kudrow, violently unmade-up, looking like the "before" picture in a plastic-surgery ad). Director James Cox shuttles back and forth in time showing the police investigation of the murder, matching Holmes' story with the conflicting story of one survivor: a biker played by Dylan McDermott.

Kilmer, chipmunk-faced and sporting a wispy beard, looks strangely like the late John Ritter. Viewing the resemblance may not be worth the price of admission. Those dredging up misdeeds of the famous seem to be getting close to the bottom of the mine, from minor TV stars (Bob Crane in Auto Focus) to major porn stars. In contemplating the personal foibles of John Holmes--well, this isn't Van Gogh we're talking about here. Essayist Lytton Strachey's comment about tragedy comes to mind: "A fall off a cliff is more interesting than a fall off a cushion." What's the fall of John Holmes, if not a fall off a cushion? Cox's disdain for the other characters--they were all so much worse than Holmes, he seems to argue--is so great that the murders have about as much tragedy as a visit by the rat exterminator.

Cox tries to make the story dance with computer graphics and two different untrustworthy narrators, punching up the lost innocence with Gordon Lightfoot music. Among the reprobates: Tim Blake Nelson and Janeane Garofalo. Eric Bogosian, in a kimono and underpants, is the textbook definition of egregious. Kudrow has the best line, in a big Agnes Moorehead scene of denunciation, lambasting Holmes for deciding to become a porn star: "You chose that disgusting thing over me!" One sequence rises above the smoglike haze of polyester, blood, coke and Three Dog Night music: some interrogations of Holmes by a cop trying to get to the bottom of the crime. These few late scenes are a reflection, however dim, of the philosophical equilibrium between cops and criminals in some of the French policiers. "It was sexual fame, and sexual fame stinks"--Philip Roth, regarding his infamy after Portnoy's Complaint. A pretty good obit for John Holmes.

Wonderland (R; 109 min.), directed by James Cox, written by Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott, photographed by Michael Grady and starring Val Kilmer and Lisa Kudrow, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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