Imagine an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” on the stylistic equivalent of speed and structured as though it were a rewrite of “Rashomon,” and you’ll have some idea of what “Wonderland” is like. The tale of the gory drug-related murders that occurred on the titular street in the Hollywood Hills in 1981–made more notorious because erstwhile porn star John Holmes was implicated in them–is an improvement on writer-director James Cox’s debut feature (the awful “Highway,” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jared Leto), but since the picture has no real point to make about either the episode or its aftermath, it basically just provides an opportunity for some photogenic young Hollywood stars to slum it up by waltzing around for a couple of hours in grungy clothes, acting like hop-heads. That’s not a very pretty sight, and certainly not an enlightening one.
The historical facts are fairly easily summarized. In the summer of 1981, a bunch of small-time drug-dealers had settled into the Wonderland house. The crew was headed by Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson), who soon took on a partner in seedy biker David Lind (Dylan McDermott). Also involved with them was Holmes (Val Kilmer), by then a washed-up addict estranged from his prim wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) and involved with a much younger woman, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth). According to which story you believe–as Cox and his fellow scripters dramatize things, there are very different accounts from Lind on the one hand and Holmes on the other–Holmes either encouraged the dealers to rob local crime boss and nightclub owner Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) or was forced to help them on the job. Nash replied by orchestrating the Wonderland murders, which killed Launius, Deverell, and two women in the house with them; he did so with Holmes’s help–though the accounts differ on whether it was willing or compelled, and whether Holmes actually wielded one of the weapons.
What’s supposed to make “Wonderland” compulsively viewable isn’t so much the basic story–all the characters are thoroughly repulsive, after all, and it’s impossible to care what happens to any of them–as the glitzy style and convoluted construction. Cox splatters the picture not only with blood but with splashy montages of newspaper front-pages and TV listings to establish the dates and provide atmospheric context. And he and his helpers structure it in ways that mimic not only “Rashomon” but “Citizen Kane,” by having the answers not-quite-revealed by following the investigation of the crime by two of L.A.’s finest, Sam Nico (Ted Levine) and Greg Diles (Faizon Love). The result is a decidedly incomplete, and not very attractive, mosaic of events, a puzzle-like contraption that necessarily winds up with pieces still missing.
The cast, however, seems anxious to throw itself into the affair with gusto, especially Lucas, who’s positively manic as the hot-tempered Launius, and McDermott, who has a field day playing against type as the brooding, bearded Lind. Kilmer once again essays the befuddled yet canny druggie as Holmes, but it’s a turn not terribly different from the one he gave to much more enjoyable effect in “The Salton Sea,” while Nelson, as the quieter Deverell, pales beside the brash Lucas. The women fare less well. Bosworth is amiable enough, but Schiller is basically a cipher, and Kudrow invests the straightlaced Sharon with appropriate rigidity but can never make her much more than a caricature. The other females–Christina Applegate as Launius’ estranged wife, Carrie Fisher and Janeane Garofalo in smaller parts–don’t register strongly. And despite the efforts of Kilmer and Lucas, the scariest performance actually comes from Bogosian–simply because the actor seems to be mutating into a young Elliot Gould.
“Wonderland” has a suitably grubby, seedy appearance, with photography by Michael Grady that takes an in-your-face approach to things. That certainly gives it a visceral kick, but doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch, and it certainly doesn’t invest it with any redeeming qualities. The movie winds up as a pointless exercise in self-debasement and mayhem, focusing on characters who are, almost without exception, among the vilest specimens of humanity. If that’s your idea of a good time, join the party.