It’s so difficult to get a movie from conception to the big screen these days that it’s a real head-scratcher when one so conspicuously pointless as Saint John of Las Vegas makes it into anything like wide release. Chalk it up to famous executive producers Spike Lee, Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, the latter of whom leads a solid indieland cast through an underachieving comedy of awkwardness.
Buscemi’s unique brand of seedy striving—honed in films like Reservoir Dogs and Ghost World—gives some juice to writer-director Hue Rhodes’ debut feature, but what Rhodes has in mind remains obscure by the end of a slack eighty-five minutes, aside from the observation that people are greedy, if not psychotic, jerks. The starting point is Dante’s Inferno, with Buscemi’s John Alighieri (get it?) navigating circles of hell positioned between once-and-future hell Las Vegas and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he fled after losing all of his money to a nasty gambling addiction.
Employed by a car insurance outfit, John remains quiveringly compelled to place bets, mostly by way of a (fictional) lotto favored by gas stations. Though he swore off Vegas, John finds himself drawn back to its vicinity when offered a potential promotion to fraud investigator. He’s partnered with the intimidatingly self-assured Virgil (Romany Malco of Weeds), who plays by his own rules as the pair investigate a claim filed by a wheelchair-bound stripper named Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui).
Very few of the quirky incidents on the road trip get any traction. Though intended to be humorous, the set pieces mostly flop and add up to nothing much. John’s bland narration rolls around some platitudes about luck and fate, but the point seems only to be that the universe is chaotic and that games of chance favor the house. Hardly a news flash, and it’s explored through only dimly amusing vignettes like an encounter with a dude named Lou Cifer or a nonstarter involving a nocturnal nudist cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother Where Art Thou, a presumable inspiration for Rhodes). A weirdly arresting exception to the rule is a darkly comic sequence involving a carnival employee (John Cho) indefinitely cursed to hellfire.
Buscemi and Malco give finely tuned performances, as does Peter Dinklage as John and Virgil’s boss, but they’re operating above the level of the script, proving that a good actor proves his worth never more so than when he’s improving his material. Faring less well is comedian-actor Sarah Silverman. As John’s unstable, looking-for-love co-worker, Silverman can’t make her poorly scripted role credible, and she comes out merely seeming demeaned. Better luck next time.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]