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Friday, March 10, 2000

'L.A. WITHOUT A MAP'

Who cares why fools fall in love?


Director Mika Kaurismaki's new film is called "L.A. Without a Map," but a more appropriate title would have been "filmmaker without a clue." Kaurismaki, brother of the more famous Aki, bets his money on the idea that one can sell a film on cameos alone.

Guess what? He loses -- hard.

Despite brief comic appearances by Johnny Depp, Julie Delpy (sigh), the Leningrad Cowboys, Aimee Anouk and Tokyo's current king of cool, Vincent Gallo, the relationship at the center of this "romantic comedy" is a big yawn.

You know a film's in trouble when it's giving top billing to its supporting cast, in this case, Delpy and Gallo, who've had Shibuya art-house hits in the recent past with "Tycho Moon" and "Buffalo '66," respectively. The real leads in this film are up-and-coming Scottish actor David Tennant and Vanessa Shaw ("Eyes Wide Shut"), and it's no surprise they're getting upstaged, through no fault of their own, really. They try hard enough, but the characters they're forced to play are perhaps two of the least sympathetic romantic leads to ever hit the screen.

David Tennant plays a Scottish mortician named Richard who falls head over heels for visiting American actress Barbara (Vanessa Shaw), and follows her back to L.A. on a puppy-love whim. He's a wide-eyed naif in the midst of big, bad Hollywood, but his innocence borders on stupidity.

He may not notice, but the viewing audience is quick to realize that the object of his desire is a total, self-centered bitch. Thus, it's hard to root for Tennant's besotted Romeo when Juliet is just a shallow wannabe starlet, who's not above shagging her producer to land a measly B-movie part, or putting up with a photographer's sexual harassment because it's good for her career (and then getting angry at Richard for standing up for her).

"L.A. Without a Map" wants to be a knockdown satire of the airhead pretensions, narcissism and stark sexual politics found in Hollywood, but it rarely lands any serious blows. All too often its parody of industry insiders seems strained: The best Kaurismaki can come up with is a producer whose next project is "like 'Aliens' with 'Cats' . . . 'Apocalypse Meow.' "

Ouch. I can even see Jay Leno wincing at that one.

And where the film does succeed -- in accurately capturing the demeaning flirting and feigned sexual interest that aspiring actresses often need to display to get ahead -- it shoots itself in the foot. Shaw's fine performance as a calculating, success-at-all-costs starlet is oil in the water of her co-star's geeky, romantic approach. Imagine if you had Nicole Kidman from "To Die For" playing Jim Carrey's long-lost girlfriend in "The Truman Show," and you'll get some idea of the disconnect.

At odds with the phony movie-biz types, with fake tans and chests, is Richard's "real" friend Moss, played by Vincent Gallo. He smokes dope, flaunts a grungier, non-blow-dry style, and lives in a "bad neighborhood" where he's down with the local homeboys.

This characterization is typical of Kaurismaki's unreflective, knee-jerk satire: Gallo is seen as "cool" because he engages with the underclass that the plastic, insulated Beverly Hills set would just as soon ignore. But Kaurismaki himself behaves in exactly the same way, using the homies as so much "colorful ethnic backdrop," while not including a single speaking role for a black character in the film.

In truth, perhaps I shouldn't be criticizing any film that I can still actually remember some nine months after seeing it. (Its release was delayed by the spectacular long-run of Gallo's "Buffalo '66" at Cine Quinto.) I recall that James Le Gros ("Drugstore Cowboy," "Safe") had some very funny lines as a fussy pony-tailed agent, jacked into his mobile and holding three conversations at once. And Delpy and Gallo made an irresistibly quirky couple -- they left me itching to see them move to the center of the film, but they remain on the periphery, alas.

"L.A. Without a Map" is watchable, and even occasionally amusing, but expectations should be kept to a bare minimum. All I can say is I hope nobody had to shag anyone to end up in this film.

"L.A. Without a Map" is now playing at Shibuya's Cine Quinto, Parco.


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