The track record of films that have employed Dante’s “Divine Comedy”—usually just the Inferno section, by far the most dramatic third—as a narrative device is pretty poor. But Hue Rhodes’s wispy comedy may well be the worst. Trying desperately to be hip and cool, “Saint John of Las Vegas” is fey and flimsy instead.
The central character is John Alighieri, played by Steve Buscemi, who here actually amplifies his greasy sad-sack shtick like a member of Spinal Tap turning things up to an eleven. He’s a fellow who lost everything in Las Vegas and tries to reform in Albuquerque, taking a job as an insurance firm that puts him in a cubicle beside that of Jill (Sarah Silverman), apparently his Beatrice, who’s obsessed with smiley faces and the color yellow. John’s recovery from his addiction is a work in progress, though, since he spends mot of his dough on lottery tickets.
When John goes to his boss Townsend (Peter Dinklage) to ask for a raise, he’s instead promoted to a fraud investigator and sent off with Virgil (Romany Malco), an absurdly brusque veteran, to prove that a claim submitted by a stripper named Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui) on a classic car is bogus. The trip’s marked by continuous bickering between the two men and episodes that tenuously recall several of Dante’s circles of hell—one with Tim Blake Nelson as part of a cult of naked guys and a carnival performer (John Cho) trapped in a suit that bursts into flames every few seconds—before winding up in a junkyard.
There’s something quite appropriate in using words like “hell” and “junkyard” in talking about this movie, because watching it is a distinctly purgatorial experience. Apart from the exhaustingly energetic Buscemi, the cast is pretty much wasted, except for Dinklage, whose officious manner is mildly amusing. Malco is asked to do little more than smolder, and Silverman is a mite embarrassing as airhead Jill. Visually the picture’s okay, though Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography sometimes looks overlit.
Stanley Tucci and Spike Lee, as well Buscemi, are listed among the executive producers on “Saint John of Las Vegas.” Either the script read a lot better than it plays, or they all must have lost some sort of bet to Rhodes. In any event, this cinematic toss of the dice turns up craps.