In Saint John of Las Vegas, the feature debut of director Hugh Rhodes, Steve Buscemi plays John, an addictive former gambler who exists in a world that most of us wouldn’t exactly call normal. After being way down on his luck in Las Vegas, he drove until he ran out of gas and ended up working a desk job at an insurance company an Albuquerque. Now he works for a pompous little man (Peter Dinklage), sits next to a chesty gal named Jill (Sarah Silverman) who wears dresses with big yellow smiley faces on them, and lives in a gated community where the gate doesn’t ever work. For all intents and purposes, he lives a normal life.
As these things always do, his life begins to unravel when his boss — the aforementioned Dinklage, who is perfectly cast as a smarmy egomaniacal boss — sends him out with one of the company’s top fraud investigators (Weeds star Romany Malco) to the outskirts of Las Vegas, where a young stripper named Tasty D. Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui) has an insurance claim that may very well be fraudulent. For John and his stern, shady companion, the path to investigation is littered with naked men burning wooden gateways in the desert, lapdances from strippers in wheel chairs and of course, a run-in with a junkyard owner played by Danny Trejo — the scariest person alive. What is there to say other than this is a weird movie?
It is weird enough to be interesting. And most of the interest rests on the performance of Steve Buscemi, who has time and time again delivered this same character. John is a sort of Buscemi on Buscemi affair, allowing him to punch away with that classic neurotic twitch that has made him such an iconic “that guy.” His relationships with the characters around him are also amusing. In tandem with Malco, it is a tense relationship built around neither character having any interest in the other. With Silverman’s Jill, it is all about the fact that Jill has several screws (and blouse buttons) loose. But their relationship is as charming as it is quirky, and Buscemi’s semi-cynical facial expressions make it funny as he deals with this strange woman who likes to have her hair pulled and tells him that she loves him after one hot minute in the office bathroom.
One more note on Silverman, whose presence is not without purpose — I never thought that I’d see a movie in which Sarah Silverman’s chest played such a pivotal role. I guess now I’ve seen just about everything.
To his credit, director Hugh Rhodes gives his first film a delightful layer of sleaziness, evoking the very essence of Las Vegas, without actually taking place in Vegas (for the most part). He builds the character of John in a way that we see him for exactly what he is — an obsessive schmuck who is constantly on the edge of a relapse — yet we root for him. Perhaps because everyone around him is absolutely loco. The look of the film is very dry and perhaps uninspired, which unfortunately serves the generally dry tone of the film. Thus, we find Saint John of Las Vegas’ nearly fatal flaw — it sort of stomps around in the desert, never showing any sign of pace. This seems intended, though it doesn’t help engage its audience.
What does help is that the movie is filled to the brim with oddity. It is certainly strange. Strange enough to be called interesting in the way that the Coen Brothers were interesting with Raising Arizona, but not quite interesting enough to be enduring. The performance from Buscemi combined with some offbeat blips of originality — can’t say I ever seen a more awkward ‘lapdance from a wheelchair’ scene before — make Saint John of Las Vegas worth its 85-minute run time, but they fall short of making it the kind of quirky gem that you’d run out and tell your friends about. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find ten people I know who might love this movie. It’s middling in that way, despite the laughs it got.
The Upside: Buscemi playing Buscemi is still entertaining, even after all these years.
The Downside: The film blows around aimlessly like a desert tumbleweed for much of its first and second acts.
On the Side: This film was the opening night selection of the 11th CineVegas film festival. Seeing as the CineVegas film festival was put on hiatus indefinitely, it could possibly end up being the fest’s last opening night film ever.