Let’s see if I can get through this entire review – about a guy with a gambling problem – without employing gambling jargon as metaphors. Sort of like writing about “Julie & Julia” without using food references.
“St. John of Las Vegas,” which opens Friday (1/29/10) in limited release, is that rare and welcome thing: a film starring Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is, along with Paul Giamatti and a couple of others, one of the most welcome of actors whenever he’s on the screen. Resourceful, evocative and always surprising, he can play a wide range of roles and give them layers of feeling and meaning without appearing to do anything at all.
It’s too seldom that Buscemi gets to carry a film. Usually, he’s the sidekick, the weasel-like foil, the comic relief. So I wish I had better news about “St. John of Las Vegas.” Unfortunately, it’s simply not very good. But Buscemi is not to blame.
Neither are his hard-working castmates, principally Sarah Silverman (in sexy cutie-pie mode), Peter Dinklage and Romany Malco (another actor of whom we should see far more than we do in major film roles). No, the blame rests squarely with writer-director Hue Rhodes, who has created a film that seems to be all set-up and no punchline.
If movies succeeded on their ambitions alone, “St. John of Las Vegas” would be hilarious. It wants to be a darkly funny tale of a man battling his own worst impulses, taking a leap to impress a girl – and mostly succeeding at that effort. It has quirky, sometimes violent twists and oddball turns which, in more skilled hands, could be as weirdly funny as a classic of the genre such as “The Big Lebowski.”
But “St. John” misses the mark almost every time. Rhodes brings his characters to the brink of a comedic pay-off time after time, then can’t actually make the leap into actual comedy. It’s the movie equivalent of blue balls: lots of foreplay, but no climax – in this case, the release provided by laughter.
Buscemi plays John, an insurance claims adjuster in New Mexico who is a recovering gambling addict. Well, not that recovering; he can’t resist buying a few scratch-off tickets on his way to work at his dead-end job.
John has a crush on his office mate, Jill (Silverman), though he hasn’t acted on it. But he gets his chance when she convinces him to march in to the big boss’ office and ask for a raise.
In fact, the boss (Dinklage) is ready to help him move up. He assigns John to accompany another adjuster, from the fraud unit, to go track down the truth about a claim involving a stripper and a supposedly totaled classic Mustang. One catch: The claim is in Las Vegas – and John doesn’t want to be tempted.
Before he gets to Vegas, however, he and his partner, Virgil (Malco), wander around the southwestern desert, seeking evidence of insurance fraud. Their adventures take them to a strip club, a solar-power-collection facility and a bizarre nudist compound. The humor is supposed to spring from the friction between the pragmatic John and the oddly uptight (and penny-pinching) Virgil.
But the writing consistently misfires. There’s no humor, found or otherwise, in their encounters with a string of odd characters along the way. The eventual solution to the case is similarly unsatisfying.
It’s as if Rhodes has a blueprint for a certain kind of comedy but not the tools or materials to construct it. He goes through the motions but he’s totally in the dark about what to do.
Not that Buscemi doesn’t try to help him. He gives a performance of great comic pathos as a struggling guy who unexpectedly finds his groove after years of searching. There’s a wariness to him, a quality of being downtrodden but not beaten, that Buscemi plays to perfection.
His effort comes in pursuit of a lost cause. “St. John of Las Vegas” is an act of faith, but unfortunately it’s belief in a cause that was lost before they started.