"L.A. Without a Map" sets viewers up for what looks to be a traditional romantic comedy. Richard (David Tennant), a Scottish undertaker living in England meets Barbara (Vinessa Shaw), an American with a camera, following a funeral. Immediately, Barbara is painted as this quirky free spirit, an aspiring actress working as a waitress in Los Angeles who speaks to the spirit of her dead father. Naturally, Richard and Barbara hit it off and set off on a montage of the sappiest, clichéd activities imaginable. Their day ends with a kiss, as Barbara heads off to the airport to return home, and Richard is left at the local pub, to brood and pine.
Then, something quite unexpected happens. Richard, seated in his apartment is torn up inside, wanting to leave his life behind in England and pursue a life in America, but he doesn't know where to find the woman who has so easily, stolen his heart. It takes the help of Johnny Depp springing to life from a nearby "Dead Man" poster to point Richard along the right direction and at the same time, let the audience know the joke is on them, that this is no mere sappy romantic comedy.
If viewers are looking for a solid romantic comedy that also has a very sharp wit and isn't afraid to openly mock the absurdities of the genre, then "L.A. Without a Map" is a must see, but it is by no means the perfect anti-romantic, romantic comedy. The film firmly rests on the shoulders of David Tennant, who in 1998 was not the household name he is today. Armed with his natural charm, Tennant plays Richard with 100% confidence, drunk with his fascination for a woman he only spent an afternoon with, quick to throw out a sarcastic, often snide remark to those he meets and doesn't care for. His pursuit to find Barbara is over in the blink of an eye and he spends much of the movie, attempting to win her heart, finding out he has competition, namely from a cocky, likely c-rate, director, Patterson.
As Richard engages in his relentless struggle to make Barbara see Patterson is toying with her, his journey becomes quite surreal and the film takes detours to make its own little sarcastic jokes at the expense of a very 90s Hollywood. We meet Joe Dallesandro playing a letch of a photographer, slyly parodying the climate in which he rose to some fame in the 1970s. Julie Delpy turns up as Barbara's friend, Julie, another sly wink to the audience, given they have seen her in "Before Sunrise" and can spot how much of a contrast her character is here. It's one of the moments in the film I appreciated the subtlety of, but could easily be lost on the masses.
One character in particular that Richard meets, turns out to be one of the most endearing. Almost immediately coming across like a cameo, Vincent Gallo steps into the shoes of Moss, a quick talking stoner, who repeats the word "bro" with an irritating frenzy, helps Richard find a place to live. Later on, when Moss returns, his annoying habit has subsided and he plants himself into the film as a true friend to Richard, helping him find a job and offering some cryptic, stoner sage wisdom. Gallo deserves a hearty round of applause for coming off as incredibly likable and unique, despite the surface appearance of tired and clichéd. He is also a reminder though of the film's weakest character, Barbara.
I attribute it to a combination of less than stellar writing and a slightly flat performance by Vinessa Brown, but Barbara is a character that is hard to like. She is meant to be a self-absorbed aspiring actress on the surface, but there are plenty of moments in the film where her love for Richard is very honest. Unfortunately, the film take a tonal shift more than halfway through, leaving behind some of the more broadly, happy go lucky, romantic whimsy, for a more serious resolution, still sprinkled with some witty and cutting humor. It's here where Barbara's behavior reaches an intolerable level, and we wish Richard would seek out someone who appreciates him. The film's final act was really hard to enjoy, with the constant thought of "they aren't going to get this film back on track" looming over my head. Rest assured, they do manage to get the story back on track, nicely tying up the main story, but at the same time delivering the ultimate punch line to the ongoing, side joke about Hollywood and the creative process.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is afflicted with an almost too-smooth look, which is likely the result of some noise reduction. With the exception of one or two shots with strong close-ups, there is a less than average level of detail, which is very noticeable in the faces of the actors. Additionally, contrast levels aren't as solid as they should, with a lot of black suits looking slightly gray. Color levels strike me as odd, with certain elements looking oversaturated, such as the deep blues of the sky, while flesh tones at times look a little pale in scenes. Whether a stylistic choice or error in authoring, it takes a little bit to get used to. Last but not least, there is some minimal physical damage on the print that occasionally shows up as a brief speck here or there; the one exception is a noticeable mark towards the bottom right of the frame, that lasts about a half-second.
The English 2.0 soundtrack is a little weak, even by stereo track standards. Dialogue is clear, but the overall life of the soundtrack is dialed back a notch. There is one scene where the track shows the potential it could have aspired to, but once it wraps up, it's back to a serviceable but disappointing presentation. English and French subtitles are included as well.
The extras consist of a brief, "Making of" featurette, that runs eight minutes, but is mostly comprised of scenes from the movie, broken up with brief interview clips. Of more interest to viewers is the collection of cast and crew interview clips. Each participant's contribution is brief and many of the responses reek of self-promotion, but the large number of participants makes it worth at least one viewing. Finally, is a set of outtakes, presented in rough format, as well as the film's trailer.
"L.A. Without a Map" was a great trip, despite the bumps along the way. The film's first half is without a doubt fantastic; it captured that sense of fun that the movies should provide. I only wish the shift from screwball romance, to a more reality based approach was handled with greater tact. It felt like a curveball, and knocked a nice A-level film down a good notch. For fans of David Tennant this is a must see. For everyone else, it's a nice take on the romantic comedy as well as the sappy "finding yourself" film that feels like it was beaten to death years ago. The only thing that holds the viewing experience back an additional notch is the adequate, but underwhelming technical presentation. Recommended.