The Vegas idea

Saint John of Las Vegas



Rated 3.0

First-time writer-director Hue Rhodes’ Saint John of Las Vegas carries a curious announcement at the end of the credits: “This motion picture is based on true events. However, some of the characters, names, businesses and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatization purposes, and any similarity to any person living today is purely coincidental and unintentional.”

It’s the kind of thing you usually see tacked onto docudramas about politics and famous trials, and those who stay long enough to read it will probably wonder what the hell these “true events” could be. It’s the final curiosity in a very curious little movie—a movie that, like its sad-sack hero, a person might find strangely likable without being able to explain exactly why.

Steve Buscemi, indie cinema’s favorite oddball, plays John Alighieri, a manically compulsive gambler who, years before the movie starts, had fled Las Vegas, taking refuge as a short-sleeve Dilbert in a cubicle-bound job shuffling papers for an insurance office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. John’s neighbor at the next desk is Jill (Sarah Silverman), who adorns her walls, her phone, her file folders, even her fingernails, with “have a nice day” faces, making Jill’s workstation an unruly splash of daffodil yellow in a sea of industrial gray.

John approaches his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), for a raise, but Townsend, whose smarmy self-importance is in indirect ratio to his diminutive size, has other ideas. He offers John a promotion to the coveted role of “level 6 adjuster.” As his apprenticeship, John is assigned to assist Virgil (Romany Malco), the office’s ace fraud investigator, in looking into—and, if possible, get out of paying—a $200,000 claim by a stripper named Tasty D Lite, who claims to be confined to a wheelchair since her car was rear-ended on a highway outside Vegas.

The ears of any medieval lit majors will already have perked up. John, of course, shares his surname with the great Florentine poet Dante, who wrote Il Inferno about his trip through hell guided by the great Roman poet named—yep, you guessed it—Virgil. Is Las Vegas intended to stand in for hell? (Gee, y’think?) Is Dante’s odyssey supposed to be the “true events” Saint John of Las Vegas is based on? (Who knows?)

Hue Rhodes is, in one way, an almost refreshing throwback to an earlier time. Rather than going to film school straight out of high school, then into “the industry” straight out of college—making movies after having done nothing else in his life but watch them—he came to filmmaking only after a roundabout journey: engineering major in college (minor in Near Eastern studies); competitive cycling; and jobs in data mining, software development and e-commerce. It’s the way people used to stumble into Hollywood during the golden age of the big studios, after being reporters, actors, World War I aviators, glove salesmen and office boys.

The difference is that the studio system is gone, so rather than learning the ropes from the ground up, Rhodes went from a couple of grad-school shorts (in 2005 and ’06) directly into making Saint John in 2009. The result, while not exactly the Peter Principle in action, has the air of a work by someone who picked up the megaphone and the auteur label before his experience could catch up with his talent and instincts.

As a result, Rhodes’ movie turns out to be slightly less than the sum of its parts, amusing touches—like a carnival “human torch” (John Cho), whose protective suit malfunctions into bursting into flames every few seconds, leaving him craving a cigarette—that don’t add up to very much. But the parts themselves suggest better things to come, if Rhodes can get a few more jobs under his belt without getting cocky—say, perhaps, a few script-doctoring stints on other people’s movies, the kind of journeyman jobs that served John Sayles so well when he turned back to more personal work.

For now, it’s enough to consider Saint John of Las Vegas a promising beginning, and to see Buscemi carrying a film, his aura of craggy, bug-eyed corruption masking a basically nice guy. Hue Rhodes will bear watching. After all, even Dante had to go through hell and purgatory before he made it to paradise.