Not exactly a gamble: Steve Buscemi is nails in St. John of Las Vegas.

Buscemi in Fine, Droll Form in 'St. John of Las Vegas'

Dennis Harvey February 11, 2010

Steve Buscemi is one of those actors people are instantly happy to see on screen, even if their recall stretches no farther than “Hey—it’s that guy!” The guy they probably saw on several episodes of 30 Rock or The Sopranos, or playing numerous support roles each for the Coen Brothers, Adam Sandler and Michael Bay. (What a combination!) Like those great studio contract players who reflected the light of glamorous stars during Hollywood’s “golden era,” he’s both a scene-stealer and a team player, seizing his moments and then some but never disrupting the overall fabric of a film.

Because his career (after some early stage work) started amidst the first Amerindie wave—notably in the 1986 New Queer Cinema classic Parting Glances, in which his brilliant turn still overshadows the rest of the movie—Buscemi has occasionally gotten a starring role, unlike his character actor forbears. These are invariably in small films, and whether they’re good or bad otherwise, he’s usually their best quality. In fact, even a weak movie starring Steve Buscemi is still generally worth seeing. Because, hey, it’s Steve Buscemi!

Getting nearly 90 minutes of the guy is definitely reason #1 to see St. John of Las Vegas, though this first feature by writer-director Hue Rhodes—which opens Friday at area theaters—has other virtues, too.

It’s possible to imagine other good, quirky actors—say, Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette, or Nic Cage—taking on the title role here. But it would still be a “Steve Buscemi part,” and as you’d wonder how much better he might have done it. John is a middle-aged Albuquerque resident working as claims adjuster for an insurance company. He’s good at what he does—boring as it is—and enjoys flirting with girl-next-cubicle Jill (Sarah Silverman), who could very well be interested in more than his mind.

But John has a past no one here knows about. Not long ago he was a compulsive gambler who for years had “a lot of luck, most of it bad,” before hitting bottom and getting the hell out of Sin City. Now his gambling is confined to supermarket lottery scratch cards—still a compulsive pursuit, albeit one on a scale small enough to avoid attention from the mob, collection agencies, or other major buzz-killers.

Then one day he’s plucked out of cubicle-land to see the boss (a hilarious Peter Dinkage), who announces he’s being promoted to the company’s fraud division. This involves field work, his first assignment being to accompany the division’s intimidatingly cool, rather surly star investigator Virgil (Romany Malco) on a mission to disprove a stripper’s claim of disability after a purported car accident.

Trouble is: Their little trip’s destination is Las Vegas, the magnetic center of all John’s prior problems. He can’t confess the reason for his reluctance to the boss. But neither can he control the spastic excitement of repressed but far-from-dead desires as those glittering lights get closer and closer. Giddy and mortified, he’s like a newly recovered alcoholic seated amidst drunken revelers, right next to the open bar.

St. John of Las Vegas is a droll, idiosyncratic, minimalist road-trip comedy redolent of many similar indies made in the 1980s, after Jim Jarmusch made a splash. Some of those were very good, some not, but they all ran on hipster attitude and the humor of the arbitrary (or sometimes the nothing-happening), and could seem a little thin.

That’s the case here—Rhodes’ script is a series of anecdotal eccentricities that amuse but seldom build toward hilarity, let alone a point. (A scene in which John and Virgil face off against Nelson’s gun-bearing male nudist cult, for instance, peters out—ahem—when our protagonists don’t even get past the compound gate. Likewise, John Cho’s sequence as a carnival “human torch” who can’t stop combusting is a joke without a punchline.) You’ll have a good time, yet likely leave wanting more.

On the upside, St. John has a great widescreen look that captures both Vegas and surrounding desert just right. More importantly, its loose, shaggy vibe lets its performers shine—and if they might have been even better with stronger material, it’s still a delight to see how much they eke of what they’ve got. Exchanging her foul-mouthed TV and standup persona for a character both amorous and innocent (Jill’s unironic passion is collecting Happy Face memorabilia), Silverman is slyly funny. Malco and Dinkage give the kind of performances that make you wonder just how much improv went down on set; their characters’ unpredictable rhythms seem entirely the actors’ ingenious invention.

Then there’s Buscemi, perennial whitest-guy-in-the-room, born to play weasels, shrimps, losers, also-rans, delusionals, the tragicomedically doomed. (No one’s fate could have been more horribly hilarious—yet truly horrifying—than his hapless sidekick’s woodchipper demise in Fargo.) As an underrated director, he’s been attracted to those types too, whether in indie features like Interview and Trees Lounge (which contain two of his greatest performances) or TV episodes for edgy series (Sopranos, Oz, Nurse Jackie). Forever getting the short end of the stick, John and his travails are a perfect fit for an actor who can wring 10,000 variations on “sad sack” and make you laugh (and/or cringe) every time.

Possibly the best scene in St. John of Vegas is the one where our hero tries to wheedle the fraud-plotting truth out of “Miss Tasty D Lite” (Emmanuel Chriqui). But it appears the poor girl, stuck in a wheelchair with a neckbrace, isn’t lying at all. Partly in desperation to expose her, John lures her into the strip joint’s back room for a private session—though since she can barely move, it’s he who winds up giving her a lap dance. It’s pure Buscemi that John really gets into it, this grotesque erotic transaction ending up both hilarious and kinda sweet.