The aggressively off-kilter road movie “Saint John of Las Vegas” raises the question: Is it more discouraging to watch a comedy that tries with all its might to sell its failed jokes, or one that lazily shrugs them off, too self-consciously cool to make the effort? First-time director Hue Rhodes makes a case for the latter here, with a handsomely made yet oddly insubstantial film that might draw scattered arthouse auds thanks to star Steve Buscemi, though long-term prospects look barren.
Buscemi (who also exec produced, alongside heavy hitters Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci) stays solidly inside his wheelhouse as John Alighieri, a sad-sack ex-gambler who has fled Las Vegas for Albuquerque to keep himself away from the tables; still, considering how most of his income now goes into scratcher lottery tickets, it’s questionable whether he’s made a positive change. Toiling in cubicle hell for an auto insurance firm, he’s given a sudden promotion when his boss pairs him with inexplicably rude co-worker Virgil (Romany Malco) to investigate a potential fraud case in Vegas, leading to a meandering road trip through the desert.
Yes, the Dantescan references are intentional (there’s also a junkyard Cerberus and a carny Guido da Montefeltro), although, like most of the pic’s jokes, characters, and subplots, they don’t seem to ever add up to anything. Pic’s aimlessness wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if any of its various destinations proved worth visiting, or if they were strung together with any sort of vigor.
Promising supporting actors show up to limn single jokes instead of actual characters — Sarah Silverman is obsessed with smiley faces, Emmanuelle Chriqui is a stripper in a wheelchair, Tim Blake Nelson is naked — and most scenes limply play themselves out with no apparent resolutions or connections to the story at large.
Cinematography is quite strong, yet inventive to a fault: In trying to naturalistically photograph desert locations, d.p. Giles Nuttgens lenses scenes with an oft-blinding surplus of blaring sunlight. The result is a strikingly accurate portrait of the Southwest, yet one that proves wearying to watch for extended periods. Other tech contributions are solid.