Steve Buscemi has never had a movie-star face, but he’s always had the perfect face for Steve Buscemi: a wearied, disjointed visage with bags of disappointment beneath the eyes and an expression forever torn between lashing out in rage and retreating in fear. It’s a pleasure to see Buscemi take a rare lead role in St. John Of Las Vegas, the feature debut of writer-director Hue Rhodes. It’s doubly pleasurable to see him in a part so suited to his strengths, even though he ends up working double-time to anchor material that wants to float away in several directions at once.
Buscemi plays John Alighieri, a degenerate gambler living in exile from Las Vegas, a city he fears and loves, where he already exhausted his luck and then some. Removing himself from the action, he now works for an insurance company in Albuquerque, where he spends his days staring longingly at the smiley-face-obsessed woman in the cubicle next to him (an updo’d Sarah Silverman, bringing her usual sunniness without the underlying bite) and keeping his demons at bay by playing scratch-off Lotto tickets. With no experience in the straight world, he’s carved out a livable, if hardly ideal, existence. But a chance for escape, or at least a promotion and a bigger Lotto budget, comes when he’s asked to accompany a co-worker named Virgil (Romany Malco) on a fraud investigation. The only problem: That means returning to Las Vegas.
Those character names are two of several Dante references that end up feeling more puzzling than resonant, and they fit too well in a film that makes gestures toward profound themes, but never fully commits to them. Malco’s stoic reserve plays well against Buscemi’s visible unease as they make their way across the desert, but Rhodes doesn’t find much more for them to do than flit from one quirk-filled vignette (a lapdance from a wheelchair-bound stripper, an encounter with some angry nudists, etc.) to the next. Predictably, the best moments belong to Buscemi, whose performance is a model of understatement in a field of grotesques. Every loss registers as a quietly crushing surprise, no matter how much bad luck has preceded it. And with each “huh” of disappointment, a little of his soul slips away.