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Movie Review

Saint John of Las Vegas

‘Saint John’ strains to bring Dante to the desert

Steve Buscemi plays a claims adjuster at an auto insurance company looking for refuge from a gambling addiction. Steve Buscemi plays a claims adjuster at an auto insurance company looking for refuge from a gambling addiction. (Indievest Pictures via Associated Press)
By Janice Page
Globe Staff / February 12, 2010

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The best thing about “Saint John of Las Vegas’’ is that it makes you really appreciate guys like David Lynch and Joel and Ethan Coen.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Hue Rhodes, “Saint John’’ is full of odd characters and surreal bits. It has a screenplay inspired by Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.’’ And it stars Steve Buscemi, one of Hollywood’s most reliably watchable actors, who just happens to be a favorite player in the Coen brothers’ canon of twisted comedies.

But where the Coens or Lynch might have turned these ingredients into a meaty bowl of something at least intriguingly murky and original, Rhodes concocts a self-conscious, too light and literal display that feels more like a film school project, with elements borrowed from everything its creator has ever read and seen. For all its clever quirkiness, the end product seems flat and over-thought, which isn’t to say it’s a bad first step for this ambitious novice director, just a long way from something that will set the world on fire.

Buscemi plays John, a claims adjuster at an auto insurance company in Albuquerque, where he has come looking for refuge from a gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him in Las Vegas. He doesn’t think of himself as an everyman; in fact, he crows about the high life he lived until his luck ran out. And he still believes he’s only a scratch ticket away from fortune smiling again.

John’s office crush is a sexpot named Jill (Sarah Silverman, letting it all hang out), who has a far scarier addiction to the yellow smiley faces that clutter her cubicle and adorn her body. As a couple, they have zero chemistry, but their offbeat conversations provide some of the most entertaining moments in the film.

When John approaches his boss (Peter Dinklage) for a raise, he is instead handed a new assignment that sends him out on the road to investigate potential insurance fraud. John’s on-the-job tutor is a colleague named Virgil (Romany Malco), an obvious reinvention of the wise spirit in “Inferno,’’ though in this case the guide is hardheaded and selfish, not at all the sort of person you want to take you to hell and back.

As the two descend into what should be a netherworld of insights, they meet a variety of harmlessly bizarre characters designed to mess around with Alighieri’s harrowing allegory, including a wheelchair-bound stripper, a militant nude survivalist, and a fire-spewing carny. There’s even a dapper-looking salvage-yard manager named Lucypher (“It’s French,’’ he explains), just in case you need to be hit over the head with a pitchfork to pick up on the parody.

Unfortunately, none of these encounters has much drama, depth, or lasting impact. John dreams of being saved but his soul never seems genuinely imperiled.

Rhodes’s screenplay leads his protagonist back to the neon lights of Sin City, where the plot takes an unexpected turn that again shows this filmmaker isn’t afraid to upend a classic. Great. Now let’s see him attempt a few classics of his own.

SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS Directed by: Hue Rhodes

Written by: Rhodes, based on a story by Dante Alighieri

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco, Sarah Silverman, Peter Dinklage, Emmanuelle Chriqui, John Cho, and Tim Blake Nelson

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 85 minutes

Rated: R (language and some nudity)

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