Saint John of Las Vegas

By Michael T. Dennis
“Saint John of Las Vegas” is the latest in a long line of movies about two guys on a road trip to Sin City. While the film is set apart by a sense of sincerity and an upbeat mood, in the end it fails to distinguish itself as anything more than an amusing trifle. “Saint John” has its moments but falls prey to conventional, unambitious storytelling.
Steve Buscemi plays John, an ex-gambler whose addiction drives him away from the neon lights and into the desert where he settles for an unexciting life in an Albuquerque insurance office. Far from satisfied with the status quo, John does his best to ease into the straight life. Without a slot machine or card table in sight, his vice takes instead the form of harmless scratch-off lottery tickets.
John's only other trouble is an escalating flirtation with Jill (Sarah Silverman), the girl in the next cubicle who is also an object of lustful attention from their boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage). Jill may not seem to be John's type, surrounded at all times by yellow smiley faces that insulate her from the reality everyone else has to face head-on, but her saccharine disposition might be perfect for someone like John with too few smiles in his past. Besides, who can turn down a quick romp in the bathroom during the lunch hour?
Life gets exciting again on a morning when John puts on his best suit and marches into Townsend's office to ask awkwardly for a raise. Instead of more money, he's handed “more responsibility” and sent out on a fraud investigation with his new partner, the streetwise Virgil (Romany Marco). Both men dismiss John's plea to stay behind, finding it impossible understand why anybody would turn down a chance to go to Las Vegas. For Virgil and Townsend a field investigation is like getting to play James Bond for the weekend.
Without even a chance to pack his clothes (but plenty of time for a tryst with Jill), John is whisked into the passenger seat next to his unfriendly partner as they head off in the direction of all John's painful memories. Here the film shifts from offbeat suburban satire to dusty road movie. The vague goal of finding and discrediting the claimant from a suspicious car accident takes them on a series of disconnected misadventures.
Along the way there's the obligatory cast of eccentric characters: among them a wheelchair-bound stripper, a naked cowboy, an overzealous park ranger, and a broken-down circus sideshow act. In every case John is the only one who can understand these creatures of the desert, presumably because over the course of his tattered life he's been even lower than they are now. His patience and compassion make up for Virgil's disdain and coolness, which John certainly lacks.
Besides the brightly lit expanse of Vegas, at the end of the road John and Virgil find a disappointing formulaic film ending. One lesson learned and one double-cross later, John is back at home with his hope rekindled and all the tools he needs to live with his gambling addiction. This sweet optimism is one of the keys to keeping “Saint John of Las Vegas” standing upright. Without it, we'd have just another case of a sympathetic loser with a heart of gold, settling for what the world gives him. This time the filmmaker asks us to consider the possibility that there are no losers, only people differently equipped for moving through life.
For writer-director Hue Rhodes, “Saint John of Las Vegas” represents his graduation from the world of student and short films. Based on an original screenplay Rhodes wrote while attending the graduate film program at New York University, “Saint John” was championed by Spike Lee and became a reality once Steve Buscemi signed on for the title role.
“Saint John” is also the first film for a pair of new production companies, IndieVest and Olive Productions, with aspirations to make and distribute smaller-scale features based on fresh ideas with a new and unique business model. For all parties concerned, the accolades will have to wait a little longer.
Part of the problem is that the Vegas quest movie has been done so many times before, and often done well. Terry Gilliam's “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” took the psychedelic angle, Mike Figgis's “Leaving Las Vegas” probed the dramatic side, and the recent comedy hit “The Hangover” took the funny approach. Go back far enough and there's National Lampoon's “Vegas Vacation” heading a list of films that take advantage of a city with built-in punchlines around every corner.
Which shines a light directly on another problem: “Saint John of Las Vegas” is simply not funny enough. The pedigree of the cast is never in question; Sarah Silverman and Peter Dinklage each know how to make the most of a small role and Steve Buscemi has given some of the best awkward comic performances of the past twenty years. Which leaves the script, and it's not entirely shocking that an inexperienced writer would pen at least a few jokes that fall flat, even with the best delivery.
In the absence of great comic moments, more emphasis is placed on “Saint John”'s buoyant tone, which at least makes for a pleasant story. While it wants to be a quirky comedy with an edge, the fact is that it turns out differently may be a blessing in disguise.
John – Steve Buscemi
Virgil – Romany Malco
Jill – Sarah Silverman
Mr. Townsend – Peter Dinklage
Ned – Tim Blake Nelson
Circle of Confucion, IndieVest Pictures, and Olive Prods
Distributed by IndieVest Pictures
Written and directed by Hue Rhodes
Based on a story by Dante Alighieri
Producers, Wren Arthur, Mark Burton, Steve Buscemi, Stephen Dyer, David S. Greathouse, Spike Lee, Lawrence Mattis, Kelly McCormick, Stanley Tucci, and Matt Wall
Original Music, David Torn
Cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens
Editor, Annette Davey
Casting, Heidi Levitt

Production Designer, Rosario Provenz