As anybody who followed it knows, John Holmes' career was one long dick joke ' one very long dick joke. Blessed by his creator with a 13-inch penis, Holmes was as close as the porn industry has ever gotten to a male superstar, plying his trade in over 1,000 films, often as Johnny Wadd, a three-legged detective who had his very own way of frisking a suspect. These were the so-called glory days of porn ' pre-videotape, pre-Internet, the period memorialized in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Indeed, Dirk Diggler, the "gifted" young porn actor played by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, was loosely based on Holmes. Very loosely. A choirboy in comparison, Diggler was Holmes without all the lying and stealing and hustling and pimping and snitching and (depending on whom you talk to) murdering.
For that stuff, you need to see Wonderland, James Cox's Rashomon-like investigation of Holmes' most serious brush with the California criminal justice system. A couple of years after hanging up his shooter (his daily drug intake made it harder and harder to get hard), Holmes was implicated in Los Angeles' notorious Wonderland murders, which left behind one of the bloodiest crime scenes since the Manson family dropped in on Sharon Tate and her friends. A jury of his peers later found Holmes innocent of all charges, but Cox isn't so sure. Nor is he sure Holmes did participate in the murders. And so, like Akira Kurosawa in Rashomon, he presents several versions of what happened, allowing us to sort through the bloody mess ourselves and draw our own conclusions. My own conclusion: It was a bloody mess.
And so is Wonderland, although if you stick with it to the end, you realize that Cox has mopped things up pretty well. He gives the movie the full MTV treatment ' jump-cut, split-screen, fast-motion, the herky-jerky shots passing through our brains like successive hits of crack cocaine. And sometimes you wish he would just slow down and relax, let the stories tell themselves. But if ever a subject called for this approach, John Holmes' swan dive into the gutter might be it. As played by Val Kilmer, who hurls himself at the role to see what'll stick, Holmes was both a Holy Innocent and a Holy Terror. He may once have been an okay guy, but drugs clouded his judgment, focused his entire life on securing the next score. Hence, his new set of drug-dealing friends: The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Up Straight.
They're a motley crew, all played by name actors: Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson. Janeane Garofalo lurks in the shadows, high on something. And Christina Applegate is all but unrecognizable as the gang leader's smack-injecting girlfriend. The scene at the Wonderland Avenue apartment in Laurel Canyon was a revolving party interspersed with robberies to help pay the bills. And that Holmes, who'd sent all the money he'd earned as the "Porn King" up his nose, was even hanging out there indicates how far he'd fallen. But it was worse than that: He was on the fringe of the fringe, the outside looking in. And he owed the gang money. And he was tired of paying off the debt by pulling out his prize possession every time someone wanted a laugh. All of which may have led to his suggesting the Eddie Nash break-in.
Nash (Eric Bogosian with a Levantine accent) was a nightclub entrepreneur and all-around bad-ass who'd taken a shine to Holmes. But business was business, and Holmes later copped to leaving ajar the kitchen door to Nash's Hollywood Hills home so that the Wonderland boys could perform their smash-and-grab operation. It was a fantastically bad idea, and they shouldn't have been surprised when a group of men bearing lead pipes paid them a visit a couple of days later. Once again, Holmes handled the entering part of breaking-and-entering, and it's this role as the middleman for two opposing crimes that aroused so much suspicion. How'd he come out alive? Did he participate in the Wonderland slayings? Was he forced to? And if not, how did his blood-soaked palm print wind up over the deathbed?
Cox doesn't seem very interested in answering those questions. He does seem interested in not answering them ' i.e., allowing a purple haze to hang over every scene, shrouding the murders in mystery. The movie succeeds on its own terms: It's artfully scuzzy. Still, it's hard to believe there wasn't a better story to be carved out of Holmes' downslide. We briefly meet Holmes' wife, a severely disappointed woman whom Lisa Kudrow captures by pulling back her hair and tightening her facial muscles. And we spend a lot of time with Holmes' girlfriend, whom Kate Bosworth endows with all the innocence of youth. That the estranged wife and the smitten girlfriend actually got along, in a mother-daughter kind of way, suggests one of the alternate routes the movie might have taken. Instead, it returns, over and over, to the scene of the crime.