[Screen It]

(2003) (Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth) (R)

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Drama: A legendary porn star is accused of committing a grisly quadruple homicide in a film where various characters tell disparate accounts of the tale.
It's the summer of 1981 and John Holmes (VAL KILMER) is a famous porn star whose career is over. Although still married to his estranged wife, Sharon (LISA KUDROW), he's now seeing young Dawn Schiller (KATE BOSWORTH) and enjoys hanging out with his new drug buddies, Ron (JOSH LUCAS) and Susan Launius (CHRISTINA APPLEGATE), David Lind (DYLAN McDERMOTT) and Billy Deverell (TIM BLAKE NELSON). He's also become friends with Eddie Nash (ERIC BOGOSIAN), a powerful criminal figure.

When a number of people are brutally murdered, the obvious suspect is Holmes due to his involvement with them and Lind's indictment of the man. However, as detectives Sam Nico (TED LEVINE) and Louis Cruz (FRANKY G.) investigate the case, various characters, including Holmes, give disparate accounts of what occurred, thus confounding the truth.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Among NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain's various "accomplishments" was reportedly sleeping with 20,000 some women. Whether that's just bravado, an ego out of check or the truth is up to "Wilt the Stilt" and possibly tens of thousands of ladies.

A bit more believable in making such a claim is John Holmes, although his touted numbers are surprisingly a bit lower at 14,000 or so. Of course, the fact that he was one of the biggest porn stars - literally and figuratively - in the 1960s and '70s means he was more likely to rack up such numbers than his basketball counterpart.

Not surprisingly, Holmes died from AIDS in 1988. Before succumbing to that inevitable disease, but after most of his "acting" career was done, he was also associated with another number. This time it was four and that equaled the number of his drug associate friends who were murdered on Wonderland Ave. in 1981.

While he was charged but then acquitted of the crime before his death, the question still lingers about his knowledge and/or involvement in the brutal murders that were noted as being the worst since the Charles Manson led Tate-La Bianca ones.

Sex and murder have always been hot topics in Hollywood. Thus, the inevitable and obvious interest in the story and now "Wonderland," a mystery-based look at the tragic events of that summer. Rather than putting much emphasis on the porn side of the issue like "Boogie Nights" (where Mark Wahlberg's character was reportedly based on Holmes), writer/director James Cox ("Highway") - who works from a script he penned along with Captain Mauzner (making his debut) and Todd Samovitz & D. Loriston Scott (making their feature debut) - has taken the Rashomon approach.

That is, the murders and the events leading up to and then following them are explored from several individual, distinct and disparate points of view. It's a tactic that's been used in varied films such as "Courage Under Fire," "Basic," and, of course, "Rashomon," and it puts the viewer in the position of third-party detective. While we obviously can't control the investigation or line of questioning, we're supposed to soak in the stories and their details and then decide the truth based on them.

Although that's often been a successful cinematic storytelling ploy, there's something about the way in which the filmmakers have arranged and then presented the disparate viewpoints that just didn't engage me like it could and should have.

It's not the highly stylized visual look or production design that's at fault, as all of that work is top-notch. Nor is it the well-known cast that is generally solid across the board. Perhaps it's simply due to the fact that the material is unsavory and/or that we don't like and thus don't care about any of the characters.

As a result, the resolution of the mystery just doesn't feel that important. Coupled with something being amiss regarding the comparisons and contrasts of the different stories, the result is a film that isn't as engaging, intriguing or powerful as I imagined it would be.

Notwithstanding the unpleasant nature of the majority of the characters, the performances are quite good. They also come from a terrific cast, with some of the actors and actresses barely being recognizable in their period garb and make-up.

The one who isn't hard to peg is Val Kilmer ("The Salton Sea," "Red Planet") who's terrific portraying Holmes in his drug-induced stupor and fading porn glory. Lisa Kudrow ("Marci X," "Analyze That") and Kate Bosworth ("Blue Crush," "Remember the Titans") are also quite good playing the two women in his life, with the former playing a character trying to break free from his spell and the latter embodying one who's fully under it.

Dylan McDermott ("Texas Rangers," "Three to Tango"), Josh Lucas ("Secondhand Lions," "The Hulk"), Tim Blake Nelson ("Holes," "Minority Report") and Christina Applegate ("View From the Top," "The Sweetest Thing") are all decent playing those in Holmes' inner circle, while Eric Bogosian ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "Gossip") is okay as the powerful criminal. Ted Levine ("The Truth About Charlie," "Ali") and Franky G. ("The Italian Job," "Confidence") portray the two main cops investigating the case and both are good.

The repeated sightings of all of those name performers and more - in parts large and small - are a little distracting. Notwithstanding the subject matter, however, the acting and characterizations are certainly the film's greatest strength. If only the way the film was assembled and told were more interesting and engaging, this could have been a terrific piece of filmmaking. Never boring but certainly nothing brilliant, "Wonderland" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2003 / Posted October 17, 2003

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