A reliable supporting player, Steve Buscemi rarely plays lead, and usually only does so if he’s also directing (Trees Lounge and, to less success, Interview). His fairly monumental appearance at the forefront of Saint John of Las Vegas may explain why the comedy has been misdirected to theaters from its natural home on the Sundance Channel. But it doesn’t explain why it exists at all. Maybe it read great on paper?
It doesn’t, however, play great on-screen. The feature debut of writer/director Hue Rhodes, unfolds stiffly and slowly, giving you plenty of time to choke on its insufferable quirk, including the fact that Buscemi’s John, a recovering gambler, is in love with a co-worker (Sarah Silverman) whose couture revolves around yellow smiley-faces. Hoping to climb the corporate ladder, John winds up paired with a seasoned insurance-claim investigator (a humorless Romany Malco, in the film’s only inspired performance) to debunk a claim by a wheelchair-bound stripper (Emmanuelle Chiriqui). Their journey takes them perilously close to Vegas, where our anit-hero once destroyed his life, but luckily within direct contact of a gallery of grotesques, including a nudist luddite cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) and a pyro carny (John Cho), not to mention a domineering boss (Peter Dinklage, reunited with his Living in Oblivion costar).
Saint John claims to be based on Dante’s Inferno, but you’ll have to take the credit’s word for it. The alleged source mostly materializes in names: John’s surname is Alighieri, his guide Malco is named Virgil and a junkyard owner goes by Lucypher. The episodic plot never plays like a descent into hell, nor is there anything particularly spiritual about the film. Mostly, Saint John OD’s on piss-on-the-loser yuks, like keycards that don’t work and oversized Instant Jackpot cards that fail to pay off. Its true novelty, beyond the rarity of its lead performer, is its under-filmed locale, namely that waystation around, but not within, Las Vegas—a desolate, dusty netherworld of sad mini-casinos with broken cash machines and even sadder, “It’s Time 4 Da Perculator”-blasting strip clubs. There’s a sadder and funnier film that deserves to be set here. Luckily, few will remember this one got there first. C-