Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Wonderland



USA 2003 : James COX : 104 mins

In typically quirky style, Christopher Walken’s long-term dream project is a biopic on the
life and times of well-endowed porn star John Holmes, although the long struggle to get
people interested seems to have worn away at his enthusiasm for the somewhat strange
“I’ve done a number of scripts,” says Walken. ” It’s sort of my hobby. When I’m not working,
I sit around and I write these things. I spent a couple of years trying to get the John Holmes
script made. Let’s face it, though, getting a movie made is a miracle. I don’t know how people
do it. I had a lot of lunches and a lot of people said they were enthusiastic, but nothing happened.
When I first got interested in it, he [Holmes] had recently died. There was a big article in one
of the Sunday papers about him and I just thought it was an interesting story: the idea
of a gift being a curse.”
Empire Australia, April 2002

“John Holmes was a normal guy from the Mid West – an ambulance driver. Didn’t realise
he had this phenomenal dick, became a porn star. When he died of AIDS he had screwed
10,000 people, was a freebase cocaine addict and was wanted for homicide… Walken’s
obsessed with him! He relates to all this because that’s what 35 years in show-business is like!”
Abel Ferrara

After his years of fruitless scriptwriting toil, Christopher Walken must have wept tears of frustration when he heard about Wonderland: a semi-fictionalised version of the most controversial and sordid chapter from John Holmes’s drug-addled post-limelight years. Seven years before his 1988 AIDS-related death, a down-on-his luck, heavily-in-debt Holmes (Val Kilmer) ends up falling in with various addicts and dealers on the LA criminal underworld’s seedy fringes. An ill-advised robbery of well-connected nightclub owner Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) ends up delivering fatal consequences for several of the perpetrators, though in real life the exact scale of the now-deceased Holmes’s involvement was never clearly established.

Cox and his three fellow screenwriters concoct an ambitious but confusing narrative structure in which events are described by two separate, conflicting narrators, including Holmes himself. Cox then proceeds to ‘jazz up’ proceedings according to the well-established cliches of the ‘drug movie’ – he’s clearly seen GoodFellas and Requiem for a Dream (not to mention Boogie Nights, Traffic and Blow) on numerous occasions, and his debt to more talented directors is evident in nearly every frame.

But no amount of visual tricksiness can distract us from the fundamental flaws in the needlessly twisty, pseudo-clever script – this kind of material really needs a James Ellroy to make it really fly, and there’s no evidence of Ellroy-standard involvement at any level of Wonderland. Instead, the film – despite several well-observed performances – ends up much nearer to the exploitative ‘True Crime’ exposes from American TV. And the messy, gratuitously bloody finale comes uncomfortably close to libelling its bumbling ‘hero’ – you won’t have to be Christopher Walken to leave the cinema with a nasty taste in your mouth.

26th April, 2004
(seen 22nd January : Cineworld, Milton Keynes : CinemaDays press-screenings event)

by Neil Young