Seeing Steve Buscemi on screen is like getting to a party and discovering that your friends hired a caterer; his professionalism makes him an automatic confidence booster for audiences. That's not to say there's any guarantee about his surroundings. As a 52-year-old man with over a hundred credits to his name, Buscemi has long been an egalitarian performer, turning up in almost as many Big Daddys as Big Lebowskis and playing an inordinate amount of creeps and whiners.
What he doesn't get to do much is play the leading man, or get the girl. If the girl wants him, as in Ghost World, where he was chased by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, it usually plays as a joke. So when Saint John of Las Vegas, in which he gets the lead, opens with Buscemi hitting on a convenience-store clerk, we assume his character, John Alighieri, doesn't stand a chance. He's disheveled and his face is heavily bruised. But she gives John a considering look. He's buying $1,000 worth of lottery tickets. He claims to be lucky. She shrugs an OK, or at least a maybe.
From there the movie begins a backwards loop to explain how John, who claims to have been lucky once, came to this unlucky point, a problematic storytelling tactic if you've cast Buscemi in the lead. We completely expect him to be a semi-hysterical mess standing under the unflattering glow of fluorescent lights. He was perfectly cast as Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web and as Tony Soprano's shiftless, foolish cousin in The Sopranos. Not to mention Carl Showalter, aka, the wood-chipper victim, in Fargo. But a fondness for the actor keeps us attentive to writer/director Hue Rhodes' film, much longer than this meandering enterprise deserves.
John is a semi-recovered gambling addict, who fled Las Vegas after some unnamed fiscal disaster and got himself a desk job at an insurance company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The only good part of his boring job is sharing a cubicle wall with Jill (Sarah Silverman), a buxom administrative drone who has her own addiction issues revolving around compulsive collecting of smiley face paraphernalia. (This seems like recycled, or at least, unimaginative material, and Silverman is shamefully wasted on a character just there to be mocked). John's only chance at making more money is to accept a challenge from his boss, played by Peter Dinklage, who is clever and sharp as usual, to go out on the road on a fraud investigating involving an allegedly totaled vintage car. The car belongs to a stripper named Tasty D Lite (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui) who is seeking to recoup wages lost from her inability to work. John is teamed with a veteran investigator named Virgil (Romany Malco, who played Conrad in the early seasons of Weeds).
Wait a minute. Alighieri. Virgil. Road trip. Where's hell? Las Vegas, of course. Using Dante's Inferno as your inspiration is an immodest act for someone making his feature film debut, but Rhodes does it so modestly that you'd hardly notice the connection. If the movie has a theme, it seems to be about making your own luck, which John doesn't believe in, initially. A bit involving an inexplicably flaming gate and a nudist colony led by Tim Blake Nelson should have been the tip off to an Inferno connection, but it feels trivial, just another slightly off encounter that's not odd enough to really register.
The closest Rhodes ever comes to capturing the Inferno's dark joys is a scene involving a flame-throwing circus performer with a malfunctioning suit. It's unclear how the flame thrower, who has some information on the stripper's car, relates to Dante's heretics in their flaming tombs, but he's got a broken zipper on his protective suit and a jammed fuel line that causes him to go up in flames every minute or so. And he's desperate for a cigarette. As a sight gag, it works, and the flaming man's relative optimism that such a dilemma can be sat out sticks with you. Other than that, Saint John of Las Vegas is one of those shaggy-dog stories that you keep hoping will get sharper, smarter, cooler, more worthy of its star. Buscemi may not be exactly celestial, but he still deserves better.