L.A. Without A Map (Director: Mika Kaurismäki): I was looking forward to seeing this 1998 cult hit for several reasons. I love the Kaurismäkis (both Aki and Mika) and if anyone can tell a “fish-out-of-water” story about Los Angeles, certainly a Finnish director can. The presences of Vincent Gallo, Julie Delpy, and yes, Johnny Depp in a film this modestly-budgeted also made me curious.
The charismatic David Tennant plays Richard, a young Scottish undertaker who falls for a free-spirited American tourist (Vinessa Shaw) and impulsively follows her back to Los Angeles. Barbara is an aspiring actress trying to break into the movies, and Richard has ambitions of his own, to become a screenwriter, so things should work out perfectly. He’s desperate to leave his dreary life behind and follow his dreams, and for the first hour of the film, things mostly fall into place. Despite the fact that Barbara already has a boyfriend, an insufferable boor who also happens to be a film director, Richard pursues her patiently. He even rents an apartment, and despite the fact that it’s in a bad neighbourhood, finds a best friend immediately. Moss (Vincent Gallo in a hilarious turn) is a sort of hippie yang to Richard’s uptight British ying, and before long he’s hooked up with Barbara’s friend Julie (Julie Delpy). If it all sounds a bit too neat, well, it is, but it’s also quite funny and charming.
But as soon as Richard and Barbara impulsively get married on a jaunt to Vegas, the film takes a turn toward the sour. Barbara’s ambition and the continuing attention of her ex-boyfriend lead Richard to bouts of extreme jealousy, and the romance drains out of their lives pretty quickly. The second half of the film attempts to lampoon the film industry but it’s pretty broad and without their idealism, the characters just aren’t that interesting anymore. The turn toward drama also exposes the limitations of Vinessa Shaw’s abilities, and at times she just seems shrill. It doesn’t help that her character is underwritten, leaving Richard and the audience guessing as to what she really wants out of her life. The ending is predictable but at least it lifts the film from its mean-spirited middle.
There was lots to enjoy in the film nonetheless. The presence of the Leningrad Cowboys, for one. This “East meets West” rockabilly band even had its own film (Leningrad Cowboys Go America) which was probably the first Kaurismaki film I ever saw. Johnny Depp appears as both a fantasy figure (Richard’s poster of Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man keeps coming to life with Depp nodding and gesturing wordlessly) and later as himself. And Tennant is a joy to watch, especially in the early L.A. scenes where he’s clearly “without a map.”
Overall, though, this sendup of the movie business is just a movie itself. We never really see exactly what Richard sees in Barbara except for a pretty face. L.A. seems like a horrible place and the movie business a cesspool. If this is a fish-out-of-water story, we realize in the end why fish generally stay in the water.