Val Kilmer has taken on his fair share of iconic roles: Doc Holliday, Elvis, Batman, Jim Morrison, even Moses. As infamous porn star John C. Holmes (aka Johnny Wadd) in Wonderland, Kilmer has another character who needs no introduction, but the resulting film, while hard to turn away from, ultimately comes up empty.
Wonderland skips the halcyon ’70s when Holmes, with his 13-inch dick, was the porn king of the Valley, focusing instead on the tail end of his drugged-out, desperate downward spiral that occupied a few chaotic days in June and July of 1981. The acting work had mostly dried up for Holmes, then 36, as he slipped into a crippling cocaine addiction, leeching drugs and money from sketchy friends, trying to keep his head above water long enough to hold onto a co-dependent relationship with his girlfriend of five years, the 20-year-old Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth).
It’s probably safe to assume that when you’d been in the adult film business as long as Holmes had, you’d be used to getting involved with the wrong people. But Holmes didn’t truly meet his match until he pitted club kingpin Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) against smalltime drug dealers Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson) and their biker pal David Lind (Dylan McDermott, sporting a Halloween-fire sale-caliber glue-on goatee). By the time it was over, four people were found in a blood-spattered apartment with their skulls bashed in (a fifth survived), and Holmes was working overtime to perfect his cover story just long enough to keep the cops at bay and engineer an escape to sunny Florida.
There’s barely a happy moment in Wonderland that isn’t arrived at by way of a coke score or skag euphoria, and Holmes appears as if he hasn’t showered since he got laid by lucky winner No. 4981, which, if you believe that he slept with 14,000 women, probably happened around the time Neil Armstrong took one small step for mankind. While the sordid hours that the movie chronicles are brimming with action, director James Cox’s (no pun intended) complete lack of interest in exploring how Holmes got from emotional point A to point B denies Wonderland an essential element of great film: something to glom onto and, hopefully, understand in a character. Holmes remains a closed book, acting out blueprinted cokehead actions as what little remains of his world collapses around him. All we know of him is that he is so attention-starved that he can’t shut up for a single second, even in his sleep, but that doesn’t say much about a guy who made his living in the ego-driven skin-flick industry.
The events in Wonderland, and Holmes’ life in general, provided a loose frame for Paul Thomas Anderson’s porno opera Boogie Nights. Holmes was also the subject of the 2001 documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, and, of course, an episode of “The E! True Hollywood Story.” Perhaps it is because Holmes is so strictly bound by the conventions of reality that Wonderland’s shining star is missing a shimmer or two. But Boogie’s Holmes stand-in is introduced as an ambitious, innocent kid whose triumphs and heartbreaks we share before the drugs take hold; in comparison, Wonderland can’t make Holmes much more than a freak show. We don’t know him as anything other than what we see, and it’s tough to find a quiet moment to take a good, hard look when Wonderland declines to ever slow down.
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Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].