Saint John of Las Vegas doubles down with typecast Buscemi performance

Infernal Southwestern allegory doesn't encourage the actor to stretch

Hue Rhodes' indie dramedy Saint John of Las Vegas casts Steve Buscemi perfectly to type as a reformed gambler named John. Maybe too perfectly. Buscemi's Ratso Rizzo-like character roles, often witty but world-weary, invariably provide some refreshing spice to the blandest of art-house films. While it's a pleasure to watch Buscemi as the lead in Saint John of Las Vegas, instead of a scene-stealing walk-on role, the infernal Southwestern allegory doesn't really encourage him to stretch.

John works as a cube rat at an Albuquerque, N.M., car insurance company, and the script doesn't specify the extent of his earlier gambling problem. His now-craggy features and seedy sideburns hint that John's slowly climbing up from the bottom. Outside his cube farm job, John allows himself to purchase scratch-off Lotto cards as a measure of whether his ill fortunes have turned. Buscemi's trademark staccato delivery makes a kind of music when he asks a Quik-E-Mart clerk for "three Grand Gimmes, four Who's Your Daddies and eight Mega-Mega-Megas."

Seeking a raise, John finds himself reassigned to the company's fraud division where he accompanies silent, seething Virgil (Romany Malco) to investigate a suspicious accident. Oh, and did I mention that John shares a last name with Dante Alighieri, author of the epic vision of the afterlife, The Divine Comedy? Rhodes turns Saint John of Las Vegas into a tour of the nine circles of hell, represented by scuzzy strip clubs, casinos, and car impound yards in the greater Las Vegas area. A couple of times, the gimmick pays off, like John's encounter with a combustible sideshow "fire lord" (John Cho), who struggles to smoke a cigarette but keeps incinerating his cigs. It's a shame the film doesn't offer more gag versions of Inferno's poetic punishments.

Unless you're conversant in Renaissance Italian poetry, Saint John of Vegas's uneventful plot will leave you wanting. John and Virgil's arguments over per diems and a few anticlimactic gambling scenes feel like second-hand imitations of Jon Favreau's Swingers and Made. Nor does Rhodes dig deeply enough into the characters or the unsavory aspects of fraud to equal the 1980s cult hit Repo Man. The film does benefit from two modest but lively supporting roles: Peter Dinklage as John's alpha-male boss, and Sarah Silverman as his co-worker and potential girlfriend whose obsession with smiley faces hints at the existence of a kitschy heaven. Despite such entertaining performances, watching Saint John of Vegas resembles feeding coins into a slot machine and waiting for a jackpot that never comes.