Wonderland: Movie Review

Wonderland  2003  Rated R  1 hour 44 minutes  

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment

Takes place in the summer of 1981. Laurel Canyon’s Wonderland Avenue was the scene of grisly murders. Porn star John Holmes was a prime suspect.

Actors:  Val Kilmer (John Holmes), Kate Bosworth (Dawn Schiller), Lisa Kudrow (Sharon Holmes), Josh Lucus (Ron Launias), Dylan McDermott (David Lind), Eric Bogosian (Eddie Nash), Carrie Fisher (Sally Hansen), Geneane Garofalo (Joy Miller). 

Directed by James Cox

For quite a while I have recognized that I have a harder time deciphering movies that employ multiple timelines that flashback, roll forward, land in real-time, roll forward, real-time, flashback…ey, yi, yi. Not only that, the story is told from two, at times three, points of view. Each point of view has a different take on what actually went down. Some people are lying and some people are telling the truth. Some characters are doing both. At movie time it is as if my mind goes into relaxation mode and multiple timelines make me work harder than I want. It’s irritating, but that’s just me. Give me a chronological tale anytime. So, when it comes to the 2003 movie Wonderland the cards were already stacked against it for my particular tastes. Four people were actually murdered in 1981 in Laurel Canyon. This makes me think of the Manson murders which are actually referenced when one of the detectives says the place was one of the most horrific crime scenes he’d witnessed in his entire career. That is where the comparison ends since there is no mastermind or brainwashing going on here; just out-of-control druggies who want a big score. I do like the setting of L. A. with its flash and desert landscapes but we don’t get much of that. Boisterous house parties? Check. Sleazy motels? Check. This is not the shiny side of Hollywood. This is the down-and-out, drug-addled, detective questioning type where you wish everyone would snap out of it.  It is somewhat interesting to learn about the real lives of porn stars, but almost instantly the character of John Holmes is someone you definitely do not want to know. Far from my favorite activity lies watching dumb characters consistently stay dumb and fumble their way through their lives.

While John Holmes (Val Kilmer twelve years after his spot-on portrayal of Jim Morrison in The Doors) was being “The King ” of porn, he obviously was not planning his future with a money manager or buying valuable land in California. Maybe he thought he could ride his massive train forever and not worry about the future. Come to think of it, this Holmes character shares many similarities with the characterization of Jim Morrison: always making self-defeating moves; being oppositional at every turn. Holmes is a cokehead and crack smoker and continues on this path for the entirety of the story. His wife has already left him and although they are still married, he treats his current lover, Dawn Schiller (the beautiful Kate Bosworth) in exactly the same manner. Although he is done making the porn that broke up his marriage, he has become an unhinged druggie and Dawn puts up with it. Holmes is such an out-of-control addict that he burns every drug dealer in town which forces his hand to become involved with Eric Bogosian’s character, Eddie Nash (aka “The Arab”). Just to be on the safe side, you probably don’t want to depend on The Arab for anything. Why would Holmes’s peers put him in charge of making a drug deal with The Arab? He’s totally unreliable and keeps stringing the group along as they beg for their next fix. At one point Holmes sends his girlfriend into The Arab’s house alone. Why? The motive is never established. There was once a short duration when Holmes and Dawn were broken up. You know what psycho addicts do? They call your parents every night when they can’t find you and say they love you and shit like that. In one of these timelines, but after the hit on The Arab’s house, Holmes visits Nash very casual like as if nothing is out of the ordinary. They take him hostage and threaten to track down his family. Holmes is just a stinking pile of idiot. Holmes lies to the detectives during questioning and lies to everyone else as well. During a flashback, we see that Holmes and his wife were actually in a good relationship until he had an epiphany one day that he could make money with his giant cock. He chose porn over his marriage and that is where it ended. After the murders, Holmes and Dawn escape to Florida where they live under assumed names. She eventually turns him in because god…he is such an asshole. There is no arc in character; he learns nothing. There are no redeemable character traits within Holmes. Although that makes him frustrating to watch, at least we didn’t have to live with him. John Holmes was never convicted; AIDS got him instead.

Another and perhaps stronger frustration with Wonderland is that the women in this movie are simply there for show. They play no part in the meat of the plot; it could have taken place without them. They have no agency and display no active thinking skills. When she is freaking out on the street surrounded by prostitutes, Sally Hansen (Carrie Fisher) picks up Dawn in an effort to take her home, clean her up and feed her but Dawn keeps calling for John. She wants John Holmes to come pick her up. This makes no sense; he’s not the one who saves her from the streets. Next, Holmes and Dawn are driving place to place for money and drugs. Dawn says she really has to pee but has been ordered to stay in the car. When she begs to pee Holmes hands her a Coke can so she can pee in it. And she does it! What the fuck is going on here? She’s a semi-drug-addicted semi-prostitute outside of a drug dealer’s house…pee anywhere! Holmes gets them a sleazy motel room but she doesn’t mind. Dawn begs him not to smoke crack, but he does anyway. Oh, well. She doesn’t want him to leave her alone in this crappy motel, but he does anyway. She ends up so bored that she smokes crack herself. I have to say that women who are in love with addicts will go to the ends of the earth for them, even if it doesn’t benefit them and it makes no sense. They will sometimes get addicted themselves and will make allowances for almost anything because they are in love. Dawn could have left at any time! She could have gone to a variety of places to get herself back on track but it doesn’t even cross her mind. At one point Dawn is asked (forced?) to go into The Arab’s lair to what? Case the place? Find the location of the safe? It is unclear why she went into Eddie Nash’s mansion (the biggest nightclub owner in L.A.) but the results are not good. She ends up being scrubbed in a hot bath while she stares off into space. This doesn’t make Dawn want to leave Holmes? Dawn, you don’t even really like drugs. Coke heads usually can’t get it up so why exactly are you torturing yourself? Dawn has somehow become friends with Holmes’s wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow). In a meeting with Sharon before questioning by the detectives, she tells Sharon that she did get away once. She went to Oregon and worked in health care. Then her parents began telling her that John was calling every night saying how much he loved her and to tell her good night. Dawn doesn’t get angry that Holmes is disturbing her parents. She doesn’t get livid that she still hasn’t completely gotten away from this loser. No! Oh, it is all so romantic how he just couldn’t forget her. She eventually takes his calls and boom! She’s back where she started. Dawn ends up lying to the cops and running away to Florida with Holmes as if they are going to get away with the botched everything. For whatever reason, six months later Dawn turns Holmes in and never sees him again. Just like many of us when we finally get over the “gotta have that bad guy/girl” phase, she grows up, moves back to the Pacific Northwest, starts a family, and writes a book. (I would much rather have met this Dawn Schiller.)

There is one bright spot in this entire wacky drugs and gun-toting world and that is the former (but still married) wife of John Holmes (Sharon) played by Lisa Kudrow. All of the characters have been so dumb and out of control that when Sharon comes on the scene with her no-nonsense attitude and sharp words you feel like shouting, “FINALLY!” She has enough emotional distance from John that she totally does not care that he has a girlfriend; in fact, she likes Dawn. She encourages Dawn to get out of this dysfunctional relationship. Pack all the bad things up in a box and leave it behind (like she did). Dawn admires Sharon and did attempt at one time to begin a better life, even working in the same field as Sharon. The best part is when Holmes comes to Sharon for help and is trying to convince her they can go into the witness protection program and run away. She says she doesn’t want to fucking run away with him. What the fuck are you talking about? “Are you going to fucking cry? Don’t cry, John.” Holmes’s trumped-up emotions have no effect on Sharon; she’s seen it a million times before. If Holmes were to call her parents every night she would fucking change their number. No wonder Kudrow took this role. She is the first woman who has any gumption and point of view in the entire movie. Since all we’ve been surrounded by are dimwits she shines bright like a biting diamond. She eventually pays Holmes off to permanently exit her life. She is never asked to testify against her husband but after his death reveals that she did see Holmes the morning of the murders. She maintains a relationship with Dawn Schiller.

All told, there are some fun moments like when crazy house party Ronnie takes an epic leap over a coffee table to land on Holmes’s chest. The fashion and music are fun and I really wish I’d been at that crowded house party although I would have been in the pool and not in the room with tweaking Ronnie drunkenly shooting antique guns.  There are some sped-up and split-screen transitions that look very cool. If you enjoy unhinged drug culture movies and don’t require chronological continuity, sex, gore, realistic goatees, or intellect, you may enjoy this flick. Three out of ten. Kudrow’s character earns all three stars.

Stream of consciousness synopsis with digging commentary:

John Holmes was the first porn star dubbed “The King”. “This is the story of what happened once the legend was over.”

Monday, June 29th, 1981 Hollywood Hills. Prostitute on street stands alone at 1p. She bites her fingernails while holding a Chihuahua. She cries and shakes while other prostitutes roam the street. VW bus pulls up. The girl, Dawn Schiller, (Kate Bosworth) is picked up by Sally Hansen (Carrie Fisher) but the girl wants her boyfriend, John Holmes (Val Kilmer) to come pick her up. Holmes: “Whatever it takes to get you back, baby. Whatever it takes.” He breaks out the coke as she starts to laugh. Mountains of snow. Snorting coke and having sex in the bathroom. 

Next, John makes Dawn wait in the car while he scores more drugs. She badly needs to pee so he hands her a Coke can. She doesn’t get out of the car to fucking pee? She pees in the Coke can? How dumb is this person? We’ve gotta turn what is in the briefcase into cash. John keeps hopping into rundown places to do skeezy things. Now in motel. He blocks the door. Smoking the coke although Dawn doesn’t want him to. He leaves. This is just what almost every female partner of an addicted man goes through. She doesn’t want him to do it, he does it anyway, then leaves her alone. 

Cool transition with split-screen and music. Now Dawn is smoking the coke in the motel room alone. A map shows John’s meanderings. Quick click views, split-screen. 

When he comes back it is daylight. He brings beer. He takes some unknown pills and drinks a beer for breakfast. John says he’s had an accident. Dawn hears on the news that four people have been found dead during the time John was missing. A detective says it is the most horrific crime scene he’s witnessed in his entire career, reminiscent of the Manson murders. 

Random guy in bar on the phone. Phone on other end of call is bloody and no one answers. Random guy has flashback of pointing a gun at a man. So far, all we know is that the random guy at the bar is calling his connected friend who says he’s going to take care of everything. The guy in the bar is having flashbacks of violent events. We have not been properly introduced to these two new characters. Eddie Nash (AKA “The Arab”) is played by Eric Bogosian. He steps off a plane. He’s the biggest nightclub owner in Hollywood. 

The bar guy is now at the crime scene wandering around. Blood everywhere. Detectives Nico and Cruise arrive. They’re just going to let a dude walk around a crime scene and break things and take things? What kind of cops are these? The bar guy’s name is Lind who ends up in the questioning room and he’s about to tell a story. Lind looks totally stupid. The costume department looked like they pressed on his goatee and his hair is so colored black it is fried. Right now he has on a do-rag with a sleeveless black t-shirt. He looks ridiculous. Why is his hair that black? Detective Nico (played by Ted Levine) is the actor who was the killer in Silence of the Lambs. If you spotted that in the first ten seconds you would be as good as my movie-watching partner. I don’t think many people can do that. Flashback to good times with drugs, girls, and money. Mr. Lind is trippin’ back to the good old days of house parties where all the chicks are hot and everyone is doing drugs. Bell bottoms, leather jackets, rock and roll, guns. In a house with a hundred and fifty people, Lind starts talking to his drunk friend, Ronnie, who is brandishing guns. “Hey man, you gonna sell those?” Ronnie says he’s been looking for a fence. Lind asks for a place to crash. There’s the couch. All of a sudden we see Lind making out with his girlfriend. What happened to the hundred and fifty people? Is this three days later when everyone is passed out or what? 

John Holmes is introduced to Dave Lind. Holmes has already established himself as the king of porn which the detectives know. This is of interest: male-on-male sexual intimidation. When gun-wielding Ronnie knows Holmes is at the party he publicly challenges Holmes to show everyone his penis. Holmes doesn’t want to show off his dick, but Ronnie shoots his pistol into the ceiling. “Show them!” Holmes does it. A girl looks to Ronnie, (not the owner of the penis) and asks, “Can I touch it?” So he doesn’t even own his dick? I like this little switcharoo even though it’s icky. Have a man sexually intimidate another male every once in a while. Why not? No wonder Holmes is a cokehead. 

Why did Holmes hang out at Wonderland? Because he had burned every other drug dealer in town. The detectives know Holmes as a scumbag, thief, bad news. Joy Miller (Geneane Garofalo) comes in and is tweaking on the couch. It is inexplicable why Garofalo even took this part. The guys need to go to The Arab because they can’t find drugs anywhere else. When Holmes doesn’t come back with drugs from The Arab, Ronnie makes a fucking epic leap over a coffee table and lands on Holmes’s chest. Ronnie gives Holmes a deal: the money or the guns in two days. “Now get the fuck out of here.” All these tweakers are around Holmes asking what is the deal with The Arab? When are we getting our shit? We just have to wait; he’s bringing it all in at once. The plot is becoming a little confusing because we are at the same time listening to Lind tell the cops this story, so it’s a nested tale. Lind is telling the cops and we are seeing the story in flashbacks. It is getting convoluted. 

Holmes draws a map to give his friends so they can break into The Arab’s place. They case the place. The more Holmes says a stash is hidden there, the more Ronnie wants to do it. Ronnie wants a big score so he can live in Maui. Earlier that day, Ronnie gave Holmes money to go to The Arab to get some shit. Bogosian as the Arab is surrounded by women, drugs, rock and roll. They wait for The Arab to go to sleep. They are loaded for bear. A gaggle of druggies break into The Arab’s house at 8a all coked up. The mayhem begins. Ronnie has The Arab by the hair. They want to find the safe. Lind discovers as the safe is opened that this is Eddie Nash…he did not know that. They take as much as possible and exit. Great ‘70s music with a smoggy L.A. in the background. Getting in the car with guns and other stolen goods. Pretty cool. Holmes was waiting back at the house. In this version of the story, Holmes was not involved in the hit. They are all excited when they return to the house with the loot. Everyone is kissing and hugging. Yea! A great Saturday morning. Seven kilos of cocaine, cash flying everywhere. Two, three, four hundred fifty thousand dollars. One ounce pure heroine. They are adding up the money. Five thousand quaaludes. Antique guns. Total take: one point two million. Everyone is clinking glasses. It was a good score and nobody got hurt. There is a strong Natural Born Killers feel to the scene where all the goods are being revealed. All the girls are excited. 

Here is where the rift begins between Holmes and the rest of the drug ring. Although Holmes sets it up and knows when the target is going to be out or asleep, the ring feels they are the ones who take all the risk and do all the hard work. They are the ones who go into the house with guns blazing. When they get back and Holmes wants his cut, they give him just a wee bit and Holmes doesn’t think that is good enough. Lind does some heroin as his reward while Holmes smokes crack. Do you want to see a guy take a shot of heroin in the tongue? Oh wait, no…that’s a pixie stick. It would have been cooler to take a shot in the tongue. Ronnie and Holmes argue until Ronnie throws a briefcase out the window, breaking it. Holmes leaves in a huff. Lind says when he saw the news on television he knew it had to be Holmes. The group becomes paranoid and begins to close ranks. Nobody gets into the house unless buzzed up. They have to keep a low profile. Holmes is the only one who knows about the Nash hit. He is the one who let Nash in and “got my butterfly killed.” When Holmes is all fucked up in bed with his girlfriend, she asks why four people are dead in a house that he’d talked about and taken her to before? Holmes is so fucked up he can’t really give a straight answer. Women are totally ineffectual in this film. 

LAPD breaks into the motel room and now Dawn is in for questioning. In a flashback, Dawn takes on an alias and goes into The Arab’s house and says, “What do you want me to do?” The Arab says to dance. The women in this film have no agency, no weapons, no thoughts, no free will, no vote. Holmes waits in the car freaking out because he’s sent his girl into no man’s land. The Arab says, “Touch me.” Despite this flashback, Dawn tells the cops she’s never met The Arab. Dawn and Holmes go to the motel. He is scrubbing her in a bathtub with bubbles. Drug addicts don’t usually have the wherewithal to stop at Walgreens for bubble bath.  Obviously, she didn’t just dance. She was violated in some way because she is being scrubbed with hot water and soap and she is staring as if disassociated.

July, 1981 Newspaper headlines. Lisa Kudrow  (Sharon Holmes) finally shows up. She’s reading the headlines in her house. Opens door to find Dawn and her dog. Kudrow is not happy to find Dawn has nowhere else to go. Sharon is mad at Dawn for still being with this loser creep. Dawn says she did get away when she went to Oregon. “I was a nurse, kind of like you.” I had a job, but he kept calling. Okay, here’s what psychos do. She is explaining to Sharon (her sister? The connection has not been established) that Holmes used to call every night. He used to call my mom every night and say, “Tell Dawn I love her. Tell Dawn goodnight.” He used to call every night. So eventually I took his calls. This is what weak women do when they date addicts. The advice Sharon gives her is put all the bad things in a box then you put them away and you get away. One of the detectives is going to take these two women to see Holmes. Why? One of my weak points in movie watching is getting easily confused with timelines. So, if we go forward in time, then backward in time, then we are current, followed by backward then forwards, I get confused. So I don’t know where in the timeline we are now. I know that some shit has gone down and these two women are with the detective. Maybe the detective is in real-time and they are going to see Holmes. Holmes and Sharon meet. Sharon says they have offered her a deal and she thinks she is going to take it. Is Sharon the first woman who has any sense in this movie? Holmes is trying to convince her that they can go into the witness protection program and run away. She says she doesn’t want to fucking run away with him. What the fuck are you talking about? “Are you going to fucking cry? Don’t cry, John.” OMG, they are married! No wonder Kudrow took this role. She is the first woman who has any gumption and point of view in the entire movie. Finally!

Old friend Bill comes in. Maybe an ex-cop? He comes to question Holmes in a separate room while other detectives listen in. Holmes says Lind is the liar, not him. OMG, I think Paris Hilton is on this yacht. This is where Eddie Nash introduces himself. “This is my boat!” This is Holmes’s first meeting with Nash. Flashback to Holmes trying to make a gun deal with Nash but Nash refusing. This is an alternate story of events where Holmes is with the group about to hit The Arab’s house. He is in the backseat and they create the map of the house. He doesn’t want to go in (contrary to the earlier related events). Holmes is giving an alternate story to what we’ve seen so far. The group wants Holmes to unlock the kitchen door and he does. In this alternate story, the group who comes back after the hit is trumpeting their success, answering the phone, telling everybody, using the drugs, living it up. Another Natural Born Killers knockoff scene of chaos where a girl punk band is blasting. The scene speeds and speeds.

Holmes calls Nash (after the hit?) and acts casual. Hey man, what’s going on? The Arab says come on up. Now when Holmes goes there they all know or suspect he was involved in the heist so they beat him up. The robbers do drugs all during the robbery and on the way out someone says, “John Holmes says hello.” The Arab is holding Holmes hostage and is looking up the addresses of his family members. “When they’re dead, I’m going to cut off your fourteen-inch cock and shove it down your throat until you are dead. You are going to do to those guys on Wonderland what they did to me.” 

After all this goes down, Holmes returns to his delinquent friends and says hello. Let me in. He does a couple lines and when he goes out he leaves the door ajar. Holmes lies for all the rest of the questioning session. No, I didn’t see them go in. No, I didn’t see them in the car outside. (From flashbacks we know he is lying.) Were you present during the murders? No, no, no. He doesn’t finger Nash and he doesn’t put himself at the scene. The detectives begin to piece together that Holmes set this whole thing up: a revenge murder that he wasn’t involved in. Sharon is willing to pay Holmes off to get him out of her life. She gets Dawn her dog back and gives Holmes money and is like, good riddance. Another flashback: Holmes drives to Sharon’s house in the middle of the night, his shirt red with blood. She discovers he has no wounds; it’s not his blood. Holmes confesses he killed (who?) so The Arab would not get her name…his black book. He insists he left before anything happened. We get backstory between Holmes and his wife and why they broke up. She loved him, but when he discovered that his dick could make him money he decided porn over her. That is where the whole thing broke up. In the flashback, Holmes goes to the house and is the one who, with a gun to his head, beats Ronnie’s wife. She ends up in the hospital.

End of movie script: “John Holmes and Dawn fled to Florida under assumed names. Holmes was arrested in Florida six months later and stood trial on four counts of murder. He never took the stand and was acquitted of all charges. He died of AIDS in 1988. David Lind served as lead witness in the state’s prosecution of John Holmes and Eddie Nash. Both trials ultimately ended in acquittals. Sharon Holmes was never asked to testify against her husband. After John’s death, she revealed that John had visited her the morning of the Wonderland murders. She maintains a close relationship with Dawn to this day. Susan Lenias survived significant injuries. She testified to remembering nothing more than shadows that night. Her whereabouts are unknown.” We see a car driving crazily into the desert. “Dawn Schiller escaped with John to Florida. She reported his whereabouts to authorities six months later and never saw him again. She has just finished a book about her experiences and lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. Eddie Nash was indicted in 2000. He pled guilty to federal racketeering. Charges including conspiracy to commit the Wonderland murders the night of July 1, 1981 and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison. He currently resides in the greater Los Angeles area a free man.”