It’s been said that there’s only two different types of stories: either the protagonist leaves his or her old life, or someone new enters it. Oversimplified? Yes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. In the case of Saint John of Las Vegas, it’s both. Steve Buscemi stars as John Alegheri, a pathetic yet quirky recovering gambling addict-turned-insurance fraud investigator alongside his new partner, an enigmatic hard-ass named Virgil (Romany Malco, from Weeds and The 40 Year Old Virgin). Together they investigate the case of a stripper (an almost unrecognizable Emmanuelle Chriqui of Entourage) who ends up in a wheelchair after getting into a car accident in the desert, which Virgil believes is a sham.
In the opening scene, we see John frantically rambling to a girl working at a convenience store about buying lottery tickets with a large envelope full of money, with half of his face covered in red bruises. The movie then jumps back in time to John’s self-narrated everyday life at the office. The film cuts between the scene at the convenience store and the linear plotline throughout the movie, making the viewer ask a number of questions: where did he get the money? And more importantly, what happened to his face? It’s similar to the vague opening scene of The Hangover, where a beat-up Bradley Cooper explains that his friend’s wedding isn’t going to happen.
The movie takes the form of a road novel, with John and Virgil travelling around the Nevada desert trying to find ways to prove the car accident was fake. In true road novel fashion, there is a lot of emphasis on strange, far-out characters that they meet along the way. Examples include a community of naked men with guns and a stuntman who’s malfunctioning suit makes him periodically catch on fire. The latter’s conversation with John and his attempts to smoke a cigarette make for one of the best and most creative scenes in the film.
Sarah Silverman, whose performance is different from her venomous-tongued stand-up routines, plays the love interest: a receptionist obsessed with smiley faces, though that’s only the beginning of her mental problems. She’s good at playing the sexy-yet-creepy role – think a more subtle version of Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers. Although Buscemi’s performance is commendable as always, Malco overshadows his performance; his combination of straight-man and sociopath accounts for most of the film’s humour.
Saint John of Las Vegas is darkly funny, but more often than not, it’s not laugh-out-loud. The cast is strong and simple, with Buscemi, Malco, and Silverman accounting for the majority of screen time. Unfortunately, Chirqui is underused, as her role on Entourage has shown that she’s more than just a pretty face. Throughout the film, the viewer is kept in the dark almost as much as John, which gives the illusion that we’re being lead along by Virgil as well. With the right attitude and a bit of patience on the part of the audience, this technique pays off, as the viewer is forced to react to the unexpected twists as if they’re happening to them as well.
Saint John of Las Vegas plays at AMC Forum 22.