'Saint John of Las Vegas' offers Buscemi little in the way of divine comedy

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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Film review

The deadpan comedy "Saint John of Las Vegas" opens with Steve Buscemi walking into a Vegas convenience store, plopping down an envelope full of cash and asking for a thousand lottery tickets. "Why not?" he asks with a mixture of defiance and despair.

Why not? Well, for starters, there's no lottery in Nevada. It's a small detail, yes, but indicative of a movie that tries so hard to echo Dante's "Inferno" that it neglects to create characters and a story that can hold our interest for even the film's scant 85-minute running time.

Steve Buscemi is shown in a scene from the film "Saint John of Las Vegas." - Photo by The Associated Press

The deadpan comedy "Saint John of Las Vegas" opens with Steve Buscemi walking into a Vegas convenience store, plopping down an envelope full of cash and asking for a thousand lottery tickets. "Why not?" he asks with a mixture of defiance and despair.

Why not? Well, for starters, there's no lottery in Nevada. It's a small detail, yes, but indicative of a movie that tries so hard to echo Dante's "Inferno" that it neglects to create characters and a story that can hold our interest for even the film's scant 85-minute running time.

Buscemi plays John, a guy who, apparently, had a great run of luck in better days but is now confined to a cubicle under the harsh fluorescent lighting of an Albuquerque insurance office. He files claims, logs calls and sort of enjoys some kind of weird office flirtation with Jill (Sarah Silverman), a chirpy co-worker obsessed with smiley faces.

An opportunity for something better arrives when John's nutty boss (Peter Dinklage) sends him and the company's best fraud investigator, Virgil (Romany Malco), on the road to look into a dubious car accident just outside Vegas. John doesn't want to go - Vegas did a number on him - but he doesn't resist too hard, either. Maybe he knows it's time he faced his demons.

But first-time writer-director Hue Rhodes never tries to fill in the blanks about John's past or his present fears and compulsions. He's too eager to send him on a superficial road trip through Oddsville, U.S.A., where John meets a wheelchair-bound stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a group of desert nudists and a salvage-yard owner named (groan) Lucypher.

None of these encounters are remotely interesting, save for a conversation John has with a tow truck driver (John Cho) who moonlights as a carnival human torch. The Torch's suit has gone haywire, causing him to burst into flames every 20 seconds as he waits for the fuel tank to empty. The Torch doesn't seem to mind, though, except that he could really use a smoke.

That scene is such an inspired piece of surrealism that you wonder why Rhodes settles for the mundane for the rest of the movie. Buscemi can do droll desperation with the best of them, but the underdeveloped John remains a cipher throughout the film. Silverman is wasted as the sweet contrast to John's weary fatalism.

As a portrait of one man's journey toward dignity, "Saint John" isn't bad enough to create its own special circle of hell. As a comedy, though, it's anything but divine.

Two stars out of four

Geographic location: Las Vegas, Saint John, Nevada Albuquerque

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