“Tarantino-esque” is an overused adjective by now. But there is no similarly-popular shorthand for the stream of indie movies clearly inspired by the Coen brothers.
What is the word for a dry, droll, meandering road-trip/quirk-fest like Saint John Of Las Vegas is to The Big Lebowski as Smokin’ Aces is to Pulp Fiction? Is newbie director Hue Rhodes a “Coenista?”
Unfortunately, genetic drift dictates that lesser-hands copying off a revered template will produce work of lesser value — even if they occasionally reward you with flashes of what made the original worth watching.
Saint John Of Las Vegas stars Steve Buscemi — and really, he’s been in hundreds of films, but how many actually STAR Steve Buscemi? I love the guy, but the casting right away screams quirk.
Buscemi is John, a gambling addict who fled his creditors in Vegas for a new life as an insurance adjuster in Albuquerque, N.M. (where the only hangover of his addiction is a penchant for instant-win scratch cards). In narrative, he seems to be trying to convince himself of the idyllic life he’s slipped into on the run. He has a cubicle next to an adoring smiley-face-obsessed hottie named Jill (Sarah Silverman), a functional, boxy house and a car.
But his inchoate desire for something more leads to a distracted counselling session with his boss (Peter Dinklage), who’s torn between conversing and admiring himself on video giving a self-help lecture.
The upshot? John is told that insurers aren’t actually in the insurance business. They’re in the “denying claims” business. And John’s future is in fraud investigation.
That’s how he ends up in the passenger seat of a car, with no change of clothes, driving back to Nevada. His driver: the company’s star fraudster, a surly, non-conversational African-American (Weeds’ Romany Malco) who insists they sleep in the car in the desert so they can pocket their hotel per diem.
The case: A vintage Buick Wildcat has ostensibly been totaled from behind just outside Vegas by a Honda Civic (which is kind of like a jockey totaling Shaquille O’Neal), and its stripper owner is claiming lost wages for her injuries.
Fishy enough right there. But before we’re done, there’s an encounter with gun-toting night-time nudist cowboys (take that, Lebowski, with your German nihilist bikers), a “lap dance” with a wheelchair-bound stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a seedy casino where the dealer’s every hand is “blackjack,” and a carnival “human torch” (John Cho), whose pyro regulator has malfunctioned, leaving him to sit for an indeterminate time as he bursts into flame every two seconds.
The scene where John figures out how to accommodate the Torch’s desire to smoke a cigarette is one of the few genuinely clever moments in the movie.
Still, Rhodes’ apparent determination to sustain the single-note of deadpan comes at a cost. It’s a note at which Buscemi is a master, but it leaves no room for emotional or character development. By the end, we still have little idea who John is, why Jill loves him, or even quite what happened.
Saint John Of Las Vegas is a movie whose sporadic laughs depend on our capacity to be surprised by “out there” eccentrics who pop in and out like the contrivances they are. And frankly, we’re getting harder to surprise.
(This film is rated 14A)
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