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Saint John of Las Vegas -- Film Review

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Steve Buscemi fans who lately have had to make do with his guest spots on "30 Rock" and supporting turn in "Youth in Revolt" will welcome the chance to see him in a big-screen lead role. But "Saint John of Las Vegas" is no cause for celebration, even though Buscemi gives it his poignant-comic best, playing a semireformed compulsive gambler who must confront his demons -- or at least some distracting weirdos -- on an ill-fated road trip. Apart from his and a few other performances, the movie is a letdown, stringing together pointless episodes to little effect. It's the kind of thinly conceived, quirk-for-quirk's-sake indie that gives indies a bad name.

Perhaps most disappointing is the realization that Buscemi was more than a hired hand here; his and Stanley Tucci's Olive Prods. is one of the companies behind the project. This "Saint," which opens Jan. 29 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national expansion to follow Feb. 12, is not likely to gather many disciples.

The film's framing device is the best part: Buscemi's jittery John, who apparently has been through a life-threatening ordeal, chats up the counter girl in a convenience store near the Vegas strip. He's more human ghoul than smooth operator, and there's an endearing vulnerability behind his frantic energy. But the story of how John got to this unhinged place in the Nevada night turns out to be far less interesting than the scene promises. Although full of incident, John's trip from Albuquerque to Las Vegas is devoid of truly engaging encounters.

That's because everyone who crosses his path is more a collection of bullet points than a fleshed-out character. Among those making single-scene appearances, Emmanuelle Chriqui is memorable as a wheelchair-bound stripper, and Tim Blake Nelson bares all for no good reason. Writer-director Hue Rhodes, making his feature debut, relies on droll gags that generate no friction or momentum. It's hard to fathom that "Saint John" looked good on paper; this is a script in which a villain is named Lucypher and is just another arbitrary plot element.

The title character is a one-time Vegas denizen who has retreated to a 9-to-5 job after his luck soured. He's shaken from routine when his auto insurance company boss (Peter Dinklage, with a firm grasp of smarmy self-regard) ups him from paper shuffling to fraud debunking. After a quickie with his Wacky Movie Character co-worker (Sarah Silverman, all dressed up with nowhere to go), John hits the road on his first mission, riding shotgun with fraud-division star Virgil. Romany Malco brings a take-no-prisoners deadpan to the role that's a fitting complement to Buscemi's seething aggravation.

Their chemistry and a few intriguing moments notwithstanding, the trek unfolds with a flatness to rival that of the desert highways (well-captured by DP Giles Nuttgens). Nothing that happens propels the flimsy story toward its unearned moral. Like the Flame Lord, a carny with a wardrobe malfunction who's played by John Cho, "Saint John" is more fizzle than oomph.

Opens: Jan. 29 (IndieVest Pictures)
Production: IndieVest Pictures and Circle of Confusion present an IndieVest Pictures production in association with Olive Prods.
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Sarah Silverman, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Tim Blake Nelson, John Cho, Matthew McDuffie
Writer-director: Hue Rhodes
Executive producers: Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Wren Arthur, Spike Lee, David Engel, David Alpert
Co-executive producer: David Greathouse
Producers: Mark Burton, Matt Wall, Lawrence Mattis, Kelly McCormick
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Rosario Provenza
Music: David Torn
Costume designer: Lisa Jensen
Editor: Annette Davey
Rated R, 85 minutes