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Porn Yesterday

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John Holmes was big. No, he was huge. At the height of his powers, the man known as the Porn King had hundreds of movies -- and thousands of conquests -- to his name. An icon in an industry not exactly known for status, Holmes would reign until his porn-star prowess was eclipsed by an escalating drug habit. In the end, perhaps the only thing bigger than his legendary endowment was what happened when porn was done with him, a sad story told in director James Cox's erratic half-a-biopic, Wonderland.

In 1981, years after Holmes' last movie role, Los Angeles police were called to the scene of four gruesome murders in an apartment on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. By now a circus-freak fixture on the fringes of L.A.'s drug culture, Holmes was believed to be involved, but his level of participation has always been a question mark; Wonderland sketches two possible scenarios. First, partner-in-crime David Lind (an out-of-Practice Dylan McDermott in a strong against-type performance) tells his version of what went down to the cops, then Holmes tells his. The truth -- something about drugs and guns and Palestinian crime boss Eric Bogosian -- is undoubtedly somewhere in between. That's about as much structure as Cox is willing to commit to; he's much more interested in a gimmicky, time-lapse directorial style that enjoys minor moments of effectiveness early on but frequently only cheapens the strong performances it surrounds.

Val Kilmer effectively plays Holmes as a damaged, disturbed naïf. We are left with a sense of a troubled man, capable yet incapable of the savagery portrayed in the film's brutal climax. Lisa Kudrow's portrayal of Holmes' dour-but-loyal wife, Sharon, is as complicated as it is quiet. In a performance well beyond the rest of her resume, Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) absolutely emits innocence lost as Holmes' barely-of-age girlfriend. And a feral Josh Lucas (Hulk) maximizes his bit part as a small-time drug dealer.

Cox is largely carried by his cast, a notable exception being the disturbing realism of his murder scene, the sickening sounds of which echo long after the credits have rolled. His largely music-driven mood is another, imbuing '70s and '80s songs like "Shooting Star" and "Love on the Rocks" with a previously unthinkable poignancy. Still, when the epilogue is more revelatory and interesting than some of the movie, it becomes clear that the appeal of John Holmes and the appeal of Wonderland are one in the same, and that's strictly as a novelty act.

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