Writer-director Hue Rhodes's premier effort, the way-offbeat road comedy Saint John of Las Vegas, seems like the product of an entire film movement that has already passed us by, and imparts new perspectives on that cinematic period by virtue of its 2009 production date. Rhodes has created an anachronism -- with Quentin Tarantino-Coen Brothers vet Steve Buscemi as the lead, and a very Coen-ish feel, Saint John could have easily emerged over a decade before it did, surrounded by Pulp Fiction, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and all of the lesser, derivative movies they inspired. One can imagine the thirtysomething NYU film school grad growing up in Middle America amid the said film movement and being raised and bred on those earlier, better movies; Saint John has the same offbeat aura, the same sort of eccentric, freewheeling characters, and an identical deadpan humor.
Those influences give Saint John a level of intrigue. Its chief antecedent, however, is a movie that didn’t arrive until slightly later than the said films -- the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). The two films are built on similar ideas: just as O Brother loosely updated Homer’s Odyssey to the Depression-era South, Saint John very loosely reworks Dante Alighieri’s Inferno for the 21st century American Southwest (and Las Vegas in particular). The idea is an arresting one: paralleling Dante’s hallucinatory journey through Hell and toward God (guided by the poet Virgil), here we have Buscemi as John, a compulsive gambler-cum-insurance man, guided by his colleague Virgil (Romany Malco) on a slightly perilous road trip to investigate an accident claim and prove their company’s suspicions of fraud. It probably won’t surprise anyone familiar with the original text to learn that this movie ultimately has the same sort of redemptive gestalt.
At times, the parallels between the onscreen environment and Dante’s hell, as devised by Rhodes, seem startlingly clever and work brilliantly, especially when Rhodes interpolates fire (in several different forms) into the equation. The film feels most indebted to its source material when the two men encounter a fiery gate on a desert road, guarded by a pack of naked, rifle-wielding men (including O Brother vet Tim Blake Nelson), and then hit a traveling carnival, rich with blazing lights and a “human torch” (John Cho). Less successful are John’s hallucinatory dreams, which also seem to reference the Dante poem in esoteric ways but will confound anyone not intimately familiar with the 13th and 14th century Italian belletrist.
Buscemi, as always, is inspired -- doing a wonderful exasperated angst as electrically funny as anything in his prior catalogue -- as is Sarah Silverman as Jill, John’s slightly flaky, smiley-face-obsessed co-worker/girlfriend. Their scenes together (including several over-the-phone exchanges) bring a surprising sweetness to the material that deeply enriches it and adds extra dimension.
Rhodes’s direction is clunky, though. During John’s discussion with his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), filmed in a series of back-and-forth reverse shots, the actors’ eyelines are not simply a bit off, but the opposite of where they should be -- John appears to be looking away from Townsend and addressing the wall. And, at other times, the writer-director relies so heavily on establishing shots that he’s unable to flesh out a gag and make it work on a visual level -- as in a sequence demonstrating John’s ineptitude at a shoot-the-target carnival game, or a potentially funny bit where John and Virgil sleep in their car overnight on a desert road and wake up nearly blinded. It requires some deduction on our parts to realize that the rising sun has prompted this, so awkward and klutzy is the visual elaboration in the scene.
A bigger problem is the fact that the movie itself doesn’t hang together as fluidly as it should. It seems, at times, that Rhodes is desperately trying to squeeze in as many oddball eccentric characters as he possibly can -- from a neck brace-wearing, wheelchair-bound lap dancer to the said naked guards. This happens to such a degree that the movie threatens to turn into a series of character sketches, and more problematically, many of the sketches lack payoffs; several of the supporting characters seem merely to exist for the sake of their own cleverness.
Even so, the movie has its share of occasional big laughs, particularly thanks to the one-scene Cho, whose “human torch” Smitty is stuck in an intermittently flaming suit thanks to a melted zipper and a broken fuel regulator (“No one will come near me to cut me out,” he complains), and a wonderful low-key sequence where John visits a blackjack table in a skeevy club on the outskirts of Vegas. He manages to lose a whopping amount of money in about 30 seconds’ time to a stone-faced, impervious dealer, leading to perhaps the funniest profane reaction from Buscemi since his ranting in Fargo.
In the final analysis, Rhodes does score points for chutzpah with this movie. In addition to a startlingly original concept, given the Dante adaptation, and perhaps the finest lead actor he could have sought for this material, Rhodes had a crack team of executive producers, with Buscemi, Spike Lee, and Stanley Tucci joining forces to bring Saint John to the screen. But the film’s overall success is another matter; some wonderful elements scattered throughout make individual scenes well worth seeing, but the movie as a whole feels limp, incomplete, and only partially formed. This gives one the inescapable feeling that this feature, at only 75 minutes long, could have benefitted immeasurably from longer and more careful gestation during the scriptwriting phase. leave a comment --Nathan Southern