The allure of fame and fortune has drawn millions to Hollywood and spawned a veritable industry of books and movies about making it or not in the film industry. “L.A. Without a Map,” based on Richard Rayner autobiographical novel, reps one of the tamer riffs on this theme. Essentially a boy-meets-girl yarn, the picture has some warm moments and funny vignettes but overall lacks the bite or wit to deliver more than modest commercial returns. Ancillary biz might be marginally better but the effort definitely represents a missed artistic opportunity.
The personal saga begins in the North of England, where Richard (David Tennant) is the town’s undertaker and writes obituaries for the local paper. Barbara (Vinessa Shaw) — an aspiring actress from Los Angeles — stumbles into the village while vacationing and decides to stop. It’s not particularly “meet cute” but they’re photogenic together and Richard can’t get her one-day visit out of his head.
So he packs a bag and hops a plane to Hollywood. Armed only with a matchbook, he shows up at the Japanese restaurant where she waits tables and has told co-workers of the writer she met while touring. It’s not exactly the best foundation for a relationship. However, in this world of not-quite-made-its, illusion is a natural way of life.
Richard’s Hollywood education is a series of misadventures involving seedy hustlers, fast-talking agents and hot shot directors. He takes it all in without passing judgment, and that passive stance undercuts the potential humor in the bigger-than-life behavior of the crowd he finds himself among.
The material requires the dry whimsy and observation of someone like Bill Forsyth. Filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki is too literal in his approach to Rayner’s book, dotting the scene with in-joke cameos from niche Hollywood players and his Leningrad Cowboys co-creations as a shorthand way of tipping his hand that it’s meant to be bizarre. For the uninitiated, it will also seem rather impenetrable and disjointed.
The pity is that both Tennant and Shaw are charismatic young performers. One can readily imagine the two creating real sparks in a more sharply realized adaptation. Also making a strong impression is Vincent Gallo as the wheeler dealer landlord of the dive the young man rents and James Le Gros as an obnoxious, plugged-in talent handler whose gut instinct lands Richard on his client roster. Other supporting players score some points but their talents are largely squandered.
The film also suffers from its uninspired visual style, which only serves to reinforce the pic’s limited budget and perspective. “L.A. Without a Map” is also L.A. without a script and, in both instances, it’s easy to get lost and frustrated.