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September 9, 2016

Saint John of Las Vegas

by Franz Patrick


Saint John of Las Vegas (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

John (Steve Buscemi) is a Las Vegan who has run out of luck. This is not ideal because he happens to have a gambling addiction. So, he moves to Albuquerque, New Mexico and gets a job at an insurance company. Hoping for a raise, he comes into work looking dapper and speaks to his boss (Peter Dinklage). But instead of giving John a raise, Mr. Townsend assigns him on a case with Virgil (Romany Malco), an insurance fraud investigator. It is believed that a wheelchair-bound stripper, Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui), has made false claims about a car accident.

Having cast performers who are game to deliver the funny, “Saint John of Las Vegas,” loosely based on “Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, does not possess the requisite wit, meat, and energy to allow the actors to actually do something with the material. For the most part, I found it mostly tolerable and only peppered with occasional high points. I was drawn into the way Buscemi tries to do so much with so very little.

One of the film’s quirks is the revolving door of quirky characters. From John’s neighboring cubicle buddy and romantic interest, Jill (Sarah Silverman), to a man in a carnival whose suit happens to spontaneously combust every ten seconds or so (John Cho), each one, in theory, has the potential to put a stamp on John and Virgil’s bizarre road trip. Instead, once the duo meets a colorful individual, there is a lack of emotional variety between their interactions. The exchanges are mostly toned down with John and Virgil skirting along whatever it is they are there for. It begins to feel repetitive after a while.

The best scenes showcase John’s crippling addiction to gambling. It is a serious matter but it is played mostly for laughs. The first scene is particularly memorable. John going up to a gas station employee and eventually telling her that he wishes to buy a thousand dollars worth of Instant Jackpot Madness tickets is both hilarious and curious. Initially, I thought he was joking. I probably would have reacted the same way as the employee. But as the scene is allowed to unwind, we learn that he is dead serious. We look at him a little closer. I noticed the grime on his face and shirt.

Final shots tend to (or should) leave a lasting impression. By shirking from what needs to be shown, it fails to deliver a potentially high level of irony, the biggest kick to the stomach, the final nail on the coffin. Instead, we are subjected to the protagonist admitting to us what he has learned during the past couple of days. What a bore.

Buscemi has such a magnetic uniqueness about him that I was never exasperated with “Saint John of Las Vegas,” based on the screenplay and directed by Hue Rhodes. No, not even with the odd and misplaced dream sequences. And I usually hate it when the ol’ reliable dream sequences, especially when a six-year-old can interpret them with ease, do not work. I just hoped that Buscemi got paid a good sum for this well-intentioned but mediocre project.

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