It’s fairly lofty screenwriting ambition to rework Dante’s “Inferno” into a modern comedy about insurance fraud investigation, and it’s a shame “Saint John of Las Vegas” just isn’t determined enough to sell the madness, spending a measly 75 minutes to work its way around primo psychological real estate. It’s a black comedy with a few exceptional scenes, but never gels together convincingly, making the artistic swing for the fences more of a quiet disappointment than a captivating leap of faith.
John (Steve Buscemi) is an insurance company drone looking for a step up in pay and responsibility. Assigned by his boss (Peter Dinklage) to join hard-nosed Virgil (Romany Malco) on a trip to Las Vegas to investigate a fraudulent claim on a wrecked automobile made by a stripper named Tasty D Lite (Emmanuel Chriqui), John’s eyes are opened to the realities of insurance inquiry. Meeting a series of eccentric characters (including John Cho and Tim Blake Nelson) on the way to the car in question, John finds his suppressed itch for gambling flaring up again, while working out an uncomfortable relationship with Jill (Sarah Silverman), a claim operator he’s recently started having sex with, to his great surprise.
Ambitious is a great word to describe “Saint John of Las Vegas.” Writer/director Hue Rhodes has assembled an intriguing ode to the fallacy of luck and the dangers of temptation for his feature-film debut. For the majority of its screentime, the picture puts up a decent fight, staging properly awkward scenes for John to test his mettle in the face of overwhelming frustration with bully/co-worker Virgil, and the sinister allure of gas station scratch-offs, which impede his fight to retain a “normal” life as an insurance industry employee. However, there’s nothing normal about the journey John undertakes from New Mexico to Nevada, on a quest to carry out his duty without upsetting his eroded sense of accomplishment.
Buscemi as John is an inspired casting choice: the actor’s wide expressions and ability to express social discomfort help the film navigate slack narrative turns. An episodic script, Buscemi is the glue Rhodes requires to stage such peculiarities, including run-ins with gun-toting naturalists and a carnival fire performer who can’t escape from his suit of flame, desperate for a cigarette. There’s also a strange moment of connection as John meets up with Tasty D Lite in her place of business, where he requests a lap dance from the wheelchair-bound exotic dancer (Chriqui shows more range here in five minutes than she has in her entire career). It’s all a touch too self-conscious, but Buscemi scores the odd laugh the more desperate John becomes, and Rhodes sneaks in some appealing visual touches with an ample desert palette. Also working is a supporting turn from Silverman, here playing a deceptively virginal receptionist with a disturbing fixation on smiley face merchandise.
Pulling all this seemingly random imagery and tension together proves difficult for Rhodes, who unsuccessfully attempts to attach a proper button on the material with some violence and plot turns in the final reel. In the end, “Saint John of Las Vegas” doesn’t offer the knockout punch the set-up hints at, ultimately feeling more deflated than meaningful.