A tone-deaf odyssey of personal discovery striving to echo Dante’s Inferno, Saint John of Las Vegas casts Steve Buscemi as the oddest ball in a world overrun by nothing but. After an intro in which John buys $1,000 worth of lottery tickets at a Vegas gas station (this despite the fact that the state has no lotto), Hue Rhodes’s film flashes back a few days to detail former Sin City loser John shuffling through a monotonous daily grind as an insurance claims adjuster in Albuquerque, New Mexico. John’s busty cubicle neighbor Jill (Sarah Silverman) loves smiley faces and his boss Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage) is a nut who, when approached by John for a raise, instead sends him to the outskirts of Vegas with intimidating investigator Virgil (Romany Malco) to prove that a lucrative claim made by a stripper is fraud.
From a close-up of John checking his teeth in a bathroom mirror that grotesquely accentuates Buscemi’s features, to a series of later encounters with a wheelchair-bound stripper, a carnival worker trapped in a suit that continually bursts into flames, and a group of nude cowboys, Rhodes’s debut works hard for surrealism. Despite such transparent effort, however, the filmmaker’s religious-tinged bizarreness proves limply conceived and staged, hitting rock bottom during a denouement involving a scrap yard run by a gray-haired, nattily dressed gentleman named Lou Cifer.
With his slouched, gangly frame and air of two-bit weasel desperation, Buscemi is a natural fit for awkward gambling junkie John. Yet since character development takes a backseat to off-kilter vignettes and recurring church-themed dream sequences doused in blooming whites, the protagonist’s carpe diem awakening plays like a superfluous addendum. John is a cipher striking a variety of choreographed poses, which is also true of the usually biting Silverman, here reduced to a preposterous, cardboard-cutout love interest defined by cleavage, fingernail polish, and an erotic affinity for having her hair pulled. Squandering its leads, stumbling in its attempts to evoke seedy Vegas-fringe eccentricity, and deluged by indie-quirky affectations, Saint John approximates hell with a fidelity it surely didn’t intend.