Let’s get it out of the way from the very beginning: Steve Buscemi needs to be the lead actor in more films. No matter the movie, Buscemi is always interesting to watch and such is the case with St. John of Las Vegas. Starring in a film based on Dante’s Inferno and produced by an interesting collection of artists (most notably Stanley Tucci and Spike Lee) one might just think that St. John of Las Vegas could be an edgy, offbeat, even original film. Yet, while it may be a little quirky, St. John is nowhere close to being edgy. It is so restrained, so held back, that the film verges on being moribund.
St. John is the story of John Alighieri (Buscemi), an insurance-fraud investigator who has had a great deal of luck in his life. Unfortunately, it’s all been bad luck. At one time a compulsive gambler, John moved away from Las Vegas to New Mexico in order to could cut his addiction (though he still loves those Instant Jackpot Madness! tickets). John tells us “For now I’m taking it slow and steady.” Still there seems to be something missing.
So, when he goes to ask his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), for a raise, John is instead set up with new responsibilities. If he can prove himself, a raise will come! As a sort of test, John is partnered with Virgil (Romany Malco) and sent to investigate a possible fraudulent claim from a Ms. Tasty D Lite. Ms. D. Lite unfortunately lives in Las Vegas, where all of John’s demons reside. As John prepares to head out he begins falling into a relationship with his eccentric, overly cheerful and slightly crazy coworker Jill (Sarah Silverman). Of course John’s bad luck returns: Jill is also already romantically involved with Mr. Townsend.
On the road, the oddball John and the terse Virgil have to work together to solve the case. Along the way there are some twists and turns (and a couple cameos including a bizarre turn by Tim Blake Nelson) but predictably St. John develops into a stereotypical road movie. The film is littered with inter-textual references both in names like Alighieri, Virgil, and in images of hell Instead of being smart and elucidatory, the allusions to Dante’s Inferno just sort of exist in the film. They serve no higher purpose. Mere allusion for no reason is uninteresting, and even banal. Director/Writer Hue Rhodes seems to be attaching these names in an effort to force a false importance on the film.
The insignificance of the many allusions is indicative of the St. John’s problems as a whole. Characters float in and out of scenes, jokes fall flat, and the entire world seems lazy. Just as the characters appear and disappear on screen, the humor barely seems alive at all. Most of the jokes will result in a guffaw but little more. St. John sets up plenty of potential jokes (a carnival performer, the flaming man, is trapped in his flame repellent suit, which repeatedly catches on fire) but they never go anywhere. Instead of laughing I was left saying, “huh, well that’s interesting.”
While there is clearly a level of care in the script, Rhodes’ direction is unfortunately bland. The film is visually rudimentary and at times it seems as though a machine could have been programmed to shot the film. Every shot features its main character placed directly in the center of the frame. There is little variation or curiosity.
The desert and Las Vegas could have provided for some interesting imagery, but none of the settings are taken advantage of. St. John may as well take place on the east coast, with Atlantic City being a substitute for Las Vegas. There is a minimalism here that echoes in the film’s use of music. Actually, it’s more like muzak.
Even in scenes of supposed intensity, everything is restrained. There are no crescendos just as there are no decrescendos. Little tension is built either visually or aurally. Everything runs on autopilot at this extremely low-key level.
Yet as quiet as the film is, it is not without merit. Performances all around are good, and it is not devoid of humor. But the structural issues of the script and overall lack of vitality make St. John seem almost heartless. That Buscemi is the lead here makes it all more depressing. St. John of Las Vegas might just become a cult hit because of its refusal for easy laughs (or even perhaps its refusal for any laughs). While it isn’t a great work of art, Rhode’s work is not a horrible waste of time either. Like its characters, St. John just sort of floats along.
Saint John of Las Vegas will be playing at Kendall Square Cinema starting February 12, 2010.
Written and directed by Hue Rhodes; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Annette Davey; music by David Torn; production designer, Rosario Provenza; produced by Mark Burton, Matt Wall, Lawrence Mattis and Kelly McCormick; released by Indie Vest Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
WITH: Steve Buscemi (John), Sarah Silverman (Jill); Romany Malco (Virgil); Peter Dinklage (Mr. Townsend)