Saint John of Las Vegas

Movie review: 'Saint John of Las Vegas' is short a miracle or two

Peter Dinklage is one of the wasted talents in
Peter Dinklage is one of the wasted talents in "Saint John of Las Vegas." Others include Steve Buscemi and Sarah Silverman. (Indievest Pictures)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Loosely based on Dante's "Inferno," yet with enough quirky star power to make an independent-film fan think he has died and gone to paradise, "Saint John of Las Vegas" is, at the end of the day, neither movie heaven nor movie hell. Rather, it's a kind of cinematic purgatory, halfway between eternal reward and eternal damnation. The question is: What did I do to deserve such mediocrity?

Indie darling Steve Buscemi stars as gambler-turned-auto-insurance-claims-handler John Alighieri, a last name he shares with Dante. But the feature debut from writer-director Hue Rhodes also features appearances by Peter Dinklage, Sarah Silverman, Tim Blake Nelson, Emmanuelle Chriqui and John Cho. Sounds cool, right?

Except you can't really call Cho's performance an "appearance." The star of the "Harold & Kumar" films here plays Smitty the Fire Lord, a circus sideshow performer stuck inside a flame-retardant suit with a broken zipper, and attached to a malfunctioning flame regulator. In his one brief scene, Cho is obscured, head to toe, by a foil jumpsuit and helmet. He also bursts into flames every few seconds.

It's cute, in a dark way. The problem's not that it isn't funny but that it feels like a sinful waste of talent. The rest of the supporting cast -- Dinklage as John's smooth-talking boss; Silverman as John's smiley-face-obsessed lover; Chriqui as a stripper in a wheelchair; and Nelson as a gun-toting nudist -- is also squandered. Their characters wander in and out, without making much of an impression.

Romany Malco ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") is somewhat more memorable as Virgil, John's mentor in the field of insurance fraud investigation. Virgil is the film's clearest link to Dante, given that his name happens to be the same as the character in "The Inferno" who guides Dante through Hell.

Here, that's a Las Vegas populated by vaguely sinister oddballs whose literary equivalents are tenuous at best. One character is named Lou Cypher (get it?). But who is Smitty supposed to represent exactly? Who knows? The look on Buscemi's face seems to ask "What am I doing here?"

But that's a question that's probably going to be on audiences' minds as well. Sharper satire -- and better use of the movie's devilishly talented cast -- might have saved this quirky "Saint" from a precipitous fall from grace.

* 1/2 R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row. Contains sexual content, nudity, violence and crude language. 85 minutes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company