Monday, March 1, 2010

Saint John of Las Vegas

Saint John of Las Vegas is a somewhat amusing attempt by first time director and screenwriter Hue Rhodes. The movie has its definite moments as an indie journey film, studded with bizarre characters and droll situations. But it leaves the audience relatively unsatisfied, especially if they are unfamiliar with Dante.

Saint John hooks its viewers with the film’s casting. One of its few redeeming qualities are the movie’s actors. Famed Steve Buscemi plays the movie’s namesake (John Alighieri), a man who has moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to escape his gambling addiction and past. Saint John satirizes the “ideal” life of living in a gated community and working in a cubicle at an insurance claims office. Buscemi captures the idiosyncrasies of a semi-reformed gambler who is struggling to cope with his newly mundane life. He adds most of the much needed and desired entertainment to the film.

Likewise, the supporting characters undertake such comedic tasks as well. Sarah Silverman, best known for her stand-up comedy, plays Buscemi’s love interest. And while the two have virtually no chemistry and don’t mesh further than the exchange of witty dialogue, Silverman immerses herself in her character, Jill. Jill is the office cutie. She teeters between blatant sexuality and innocence with her cleavage revealing outfits and her complete obsession with smiley faces.

John’s boss (Peter Dinklage) has a small role but he too adds some fleeting humor. Tim Blake Nelson’s appearance as a nudist and John Cho as a man on fire also serve similar purposes. They are there to be funny, but add little to Saint John’s meaning or narrative.

When John goes to ask his boss for a raise, he is instead sent to investigate an insurance fraud case with his coworker, Virgil (Romany Malco, from 40 Year Old Virgin and “Weeds”). This is where things begin to unravel. The two set out on a road trip to inspect the story of a stripper involved in a car crash that their company believes is fraudulent. Enter (now) handicapped stripper Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui, “Entourage”) and watch her try and give John a lap dance…from her wheelchair.

Their journey continues, made up of such ridiculous scenes one after another, as they persist in their mission. But the pair ends up in Las Vegas, John’s foible. He believes that he was once a lucky man but he continually proves that he ran out of any supposed luck a long time ago with his continuous losing and failures.

These segments may be humorous and work standing alone but they are oddly disjointed. The most poignant, and funniest, scene surrounds a carnival sideshow act. John Cho plays the masked “Flaming Man” and is stuck in his fire suit. The suit has malfunctioned and spontaneously lights on fire every twenty seconds. No one will fix the gas tank because they’re too afraid of getting close to him, so he sits on a chair and waits out the fire. His predicament is that he wildly craves a cigarette – a clear problem when you are on fire. His interaction with John is short but sweet, and so satisfying.

At the crux of the movie though is Dante’s epic poem, Inferno. Saint John is actually an adaptation of this literary masterpiece. Rhodes’ protagonist has Dante’s last name (Alighieri); John’s companion is Virgil, the name of Dante’s tour guide through Hell; there is a character named Lou Cypher; and the film (if inspected carefully) moves through the nine circles of Hell. Oh, and Hell is Las Vegas. Naturally.

These allusions and comparisons are not obvious though. To the untrained or unknowledgeable they can be completely overlooked. This, of course, would be missing the whole basis of the film. Yet, even to those who cannot decipher the allusions, Saint John remains hard to swallow.

There is no conclusive resolution to the movie. The film asks if someone can be lucky. Seemingly the answer is no, but John is unable to lose his faith the luck gods. Perhaps that’s just his inner gambler. Yet another frustrating aspect of the Saint John is that the protagonist never fully develops. He learns, but does not exactly grow or change. John is not completely static but his journey brings him almost right back where he started.

Steve Buscemi fans will relish Saint John the most. There is no doubt that he carries the film. But moviegoers looking for a good laugh or an enjoyable film (most likely those intrigued by the trailer) will be more than disappointed.

Originally printed in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

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