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February 7, 2010

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Offbeat comedy devolves to mundane

THE deadpan comedy "Saint John of Las Vegas" opens with Steve Buscemi (pictured left) walking into a Vegas convenience store, plopping down an envelope full of cash and asking for 1,000 lottery tickets. "Why not?" he asks with a mixture of defiance and despair.

Why not? Well, for starters, there's no lottery in Nevada. It is a small detail, yes, but indicative of a movie that tries so hard to echo Dante's "Inferno" that it neglects to create characters and a story.

Buscemi plays John, a guy who, apparently, had a great run of luck in better days but is now confined to a cubicle under the harsh fluorescent lighting of an insurance office. He files claims, logs calls and sort of enjoys some kind of weird office flirtation with Jill (Sarah Silverman), a chirpy co-worker obsessed with smiley faces.

An opportunity for something better arrives when John's nutty boss (Peter Dinklage) sends him and the company's best fraud investigator, Virgil (Romany Malco), on the road to look into a dubious car accident just outside Vegas. John does not want to go °?- Vegas did a number on him - but he does not resist too hard, either.

But first-time writer-director Hue Rhodes never tries to fill in the blanks. John is too eager on a superficial road trip through Oddsville, the US, where he meets a wheelchair-using stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a group of desert nudists and a salvage-yard owner named Lucypher.

None of these encounters are remotely interesting, save for a conversation John has with a tow truck driver (John Cho) who moonlights as a carnival human torch. The Torch's suit has gone haywire, causing him to burst into flames every 20 seconds as he waits for the fuel tank to empty.

That scene is such an inspired piece of surrealism that you wonder why Rhodes settles for the mundane for the rest of the movie.

As a portrait of one man's journey toward dignity, "Saint John" is not bad enough to create its own special circle of hell. As a comedy, though, it's anything but divine.


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