Wonderland, 104 mins, releases nationally 29 January 2004

This Wonderland is not to be confused with the 1999 film of the same name, directed by talented British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. That Wonderland was a far superior film.

This Wonderland is directed by young filmmaker James Cox, who's fresh out of New York University film school. In fact, the director and the screenwriters are all relatively young and inexperienced. They favour a fast-paced, non-linear, MTV-influenced visual and narrative style. It is energetic and exciting, and gives the film a breathless excitement that suits the subject-matter. So Wonderland is expertly made from a technical standpoint, but in the end style triumphs over substance.

For example, there is a fascinating cast, but most of the talent is wasted – and unrecognisable. I watched the whole film without recognising Dylan McDermott (Bobby Donnell, the defence lawyer from TV’s The Practice) and Tim Blake Nelson (from the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). I still can’t work out where Janeane Garofalo (from The Truth about Cats and Dogs and TV’s The Larry Sanders Show) was. As for Carrie Fisher (from the original Star Wars trilogy), I’m shocked!

So Cox has a dream cast, and he wastes them. But maybe that’s appropriate, because most of the characters are “wasted” most of the time. You see, this is a Drug Film. It is also extremely violent.

The story revolves around real multiple murders that took place in an apartment on Wonderland Avenue, in Laurel Canyon (itself the subject of a recent film, Laurel Canyon, by Lisa Cholodenko). The apartment was the lair of drug dealers and the murder was horrific. When it is not revelling in the grisliness of the crime – which seems to be some kind of payback for a robbery by the drug dealers on an underworld kingpin – the film focuses on the possible involvement of John Holmes. Holmes was a real life porn star (aka “the King of Porn” and “Johnny Wadd”) who enjoyed some time at the top of his profession and then descended into a drug-riddled spiral.

The press materials describe Wonderland as exploring “in Rashomon-like fashion” these brutal murders. Rashomon was the 1950 breakthrough film of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa. It electrified audiences at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. It examines an ambush, rape and murder from the viewpoints of various witnesses. The events surrounding the crime are examined and re-examined, each time reflecting the differing perceptions of each witness. In doing this, Kurosawa was asking the question “What is Truth?” Rashomon is fascinating especially for lawyers, who know only too well the different stories that witnesses (and clients) can tell about the same incident.

Unfortunately, in Wonderland, the characters are so unlikeable, so drug-addled, and their constant drug-taking is so boring, that the answer to “What is truth?” is “Who cares?” And many will find it distressing to watch such a violent multiple murder over and over again. Kurosawa was much more circumspect about showing the detail of the crime.

On the up side, Val Kilmer does make a charismatic John Holmes. But we never get to see him in his prime, which could have been fun. Instead, it is all downhill for Johnny Wadd.
The other actor who makes a real impression is Lisa Kudrow (from The Opposite of Sex and TV’s Friends), as Sharon Holmes. The film brightens when she is on screen – perhaps because she’s the only character who’s not caught up in drugs or crime.

The film’s soundtrack is packed with pop and rock songs from the 80s, but they are chosen with a heavy hand. For example, when one character says: “Bobby was a good ole boy”, the country and western music cranks up. It’s blindingly obvious.

We’ve been in this territory before. Boogie Nights (PT Anderson, 1997) dealt with the porn industry in LA in the 1970s, and somehow managed to do so in a light and innocent way, with much humour. Its lead character was a kind of fictional John Holmes. Blow (Ted Demme, 2001) covered the excesses of the drug scene in the 1970s. That was a tough film, but not without interest, especially as a historical document. It was worth watching for the fashions alone. But in Wonderland, everyone is dreary and strung out or high. The writers hoped to elevate it into some sort of neo-Film Noir with a strange love triangle on the side. But for me, it was just a confusing and repetitious story about a horrible crime committed by, and on, people that I didn’t care about.