Sympathy for the Devil: Of Two Tales of Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'roll, It Is the Film Made 30 Years Ago That Thrills
Kermode, Mark, New Statesman (1996)
The popularisation of pornography in the early 1970s created two unlikely cult heroes. One was Harry Reems, a passable comic actor who co-starred with Linda Lovelace in the genre-defining hit Deep Throat, and who later retired from porn to redirect his energies into religion and real estate. More notorious was John Holmes, a man blessed with a legendarily lengthy penis, whose fall from stardom became a paradigm for all that was self-destructive about the sex industry. Having enjoyed the high life as the world's premier porn stud in the 1970s. Holmes spiralled into drug addiction and delinquency, and then was arrested (but acquitted) for alleged involvement in a brutal massacre on Hollywood's Wonderland Avenue in 1981. He died of an Aids-related illness in 1988.
In the magnificent Boogie Nights, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson transformed the bleak bones of Holmes's life story into a fabulous fairy tale of family values in which people behaved decently in even the most apparently indecent circumstances. Wonderland, which takes no such inventive liberties in its grim depiction of the unresolved murders, makes for far more depressing viewing. Whereas Anderson constantly found common ground between the extraordinary lives of his characters and the more everyday experiences of the audience, writer/director James Cox seems content merely to conjure a menagerie of unlikeable archetypes in whose violent fates it is hard to make any emotional investment. Instead, we watch with disheartening detachment as the mumbling, shambling, snorting, rutting lowlifes go about their variously disreputable business, teaching us only that all junkies are shitheads, all drug dealers murderers (probably), and that anyone who spends time with them will end up robbed, maimed or dead.
There is something perversely satisfying about watching fallen star Val Kilmer, who was so odious at the height of his fame, being reduced to playing a washed-up slimeball in what is, on one level, a low(er)-budget exploitation movie. Yet unlike Mickey Rourke, with his self-deprecating cameo in Spun (to which Wonderland bears thematic and stylistic comparison), Kilmer somehow manages to retain the same smug, self-adoring demeanour that made you want to punch him in such big-budget stinkers as The Saint and The Island of Doctor Moreau, but which is ironically appropriate here. …