CAPSULE: SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS (2009)

DIRECTED BY:  Hue Rhodes

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco, Sarah Silverman,

PLOT: An insurance fraud investigator with a secret gambling addiction is assigned to investigate a wheelchair-bound stripper’s accident claim in Las Vegas.

Still from Saint John of Las Vegas (2009)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSaint John lands the dreaded double whammy: it’s not very weird, and not that good.

COMMENTS:  In blackjack, a player sometimes gets a decent hand but pushes his luck, takes another hit and end up going bust.  Saint John of Las Vegas starts with good cards: quirky indie icon Steve Buscemi, a plot hook about fate leading a problem gambler to the worst place in the world for him, and good supporting performances by Sarah Silverman as the new girlfriend whose sunniness and clinginess besmirch her sexiness and Peter Dinklage as the smarmy, fast-talking boss.  There are a couple of nearly brilliant, ironically absurd individual ideas: a wheelchair lapdance and a carnival sideshow attraction trapped in a malfunctioning flame suit.  But every good scene is undone by at least two corresponding clunkers: sleepyheads un-comically freaking out when awakened by the glare from a nearby glass building, a sequence involving a clique of nude men in the desert that works too hard for its single joke, a slowly revealed recurring dream that explains nothing, and a nonsensical, bungled twist ending that explains even less.  Apprentice fraud investigator Buscemi hits the road with vet adjuster Malco, an unflappable, cocky black dude whose too-cool-for-school glare gets him past strip club bouncers without paying the cover.  The mismatched pair never develop a chemistry to drive the movie; though he’s just doing what the script tells him to, Malco remains more of a constant annoyance than a worthy antagonist for Buscemi.   The final card that makes the movie go bust, however, is the half-hearted attempt to base the story on Dante’s “Inferno.”  English majors’ ears will perk up when they hear that Buscemi’s guide to the City of Sin is named Virgil, but anyone hoping to pick out correspondences to the epic poem will be frustrated, and anyone not familiar with Dante will be confused by the digressions.  The script stretches for circles.  Lust works, but where’s gluttony, who are the naked guys supposed to represent, and is there a new mortal sin—nicotine addiction—sandwiched somewhere in between wrath and heresy?  Writer/director Rhodes prominently gives Dante Alighieri a “based on a story by” credit, which is borderline unethical; the guy’s been dead for almost 700 years, so he’s not likely to have his agent call to get his name taken off the credits.  Still, with all its script problems and its chronic lack of laughs, Buscemi’s shaggy charisma keeps the project from being a total waste.  The rat-faced actor was born to play strung-out losers seeking redemption; a middle-aged desk-slave addicted to scratch off lottery cards is a role he can’t completely whiff on.

First time feature writer/director Hue Rhodes, who made a mid-life career change from software engineer to filmmaker, obviously charmed a lot of people into believing in him.   Not only did he lure Buscemi on board, but Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci show up in the credits as executive producers.  Their confidence wasn’t completely misplaced, as Rhodes does prove competent: although Saint John‘s parts don’t fit together into a bigger picture, the individual pieces are technically polished, making for a salable trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rhodes buries his would-be comic tale of desert losers in a welter of quirkiness and lousy surrealism, largely wasting an alluring cast brimming with humorous potential.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

One thought on “CAPSULE: SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS (2009)”

  1. In a surprise development, director Hue Rhodes stopped by to defend and explain his film. In an even more surprising development, the server we used to be located on crashed soon thereafter, and we lost the comments. Now, no one believes me.

    To recap his comments as best I remember: he was very polite, but gently (and understandably) objected to the “Dante can’t get his name taken off the credits” crack. He then expanded on some of the references to Dante in the film. He explained that the naked men in the desert came from a similar scene in front of the City of Dis in the “Inferno.” He also explained that Virgil was black in the movie because he was an outsider (in the poem, Virgil was an outsider because he was a pagan).

    He expressed disappointment at not making the List, saying he thought his film was weirder than (for example) A Serious Man. But he also admitted that weirdness was not his aim in the film, closing by saying “but when there’s an exclusive list you want to be on it.”

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