Let's see if I can get through this entire review -- about a guy with a gambling problem - without employing gambling jargon as metaphors. Sort of like writing about Julie & Julia without using food references.
St. John of Las Vegas, which opens Friday (1/29/10) in limited release, is that rare and welcome thing: a film starring Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is, along with Paul Giamatti and a couple of others, one of the most welcome of actors whenever he's on the screen. Resourceful, evocative and always surprising, he can play a wide range of roles and give them layers of feeling and meaning without appearing to do anything at all.
It's too seldom that Buscemi gets to carry a film. Usually, he's the sidekick, the weasel-like foil, the comic relief. So I wish I had better news about St. John of Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it's simply not very good. But Buscemi is not to blame.
Neither are his hard-working castmates, principally Sarah Silverman (in sexy cutie-pie mode), Peter Dinklage and Romany Malco (another actor of whom we should see far more than we do in major film roles). No, the blame rests squarely with writer-director Hue Rhodes, who has created a film that seems to be all set-up and no punchline.
If movies succeeded on their ambitions alone, St. John of Las Vegas would be hilarious. It wants to be a darkly funny tale of a man battling his own worst impulses, taking a leap to impress a girl -- and mostly succeeding at that effort. It has quirky, sometimes violent twists and oddball turns which, in more skilled hands, could be as weirdly funny as a classic of the genre such as The Big Lebowski.
But St. John misses the mark almost every time. Rhodes brings his characters to the brink of a comedic pay-off time after time, then can't actually make the leap into actual comedy. It's the movie equivalent of blue balls: lots of foreplay, but no climax -- in this case, the release provided by laughter.
Buscemi plays John, an insurance claims adjuster in New Mexico who is a recovering gambling addict. Well, not that recovering; he can't resist buying a few scratch-off tickets on his way to work at his dead-end job.
John has a crush on his office mate, Jill (Silverman), though he hasn't acted on it. But he gets his chance when she convinces him to march in to the big boss' office and ask for a raise.