Of the many, many things Pixar has gotten right in the last decade or so, one of their keenest moves was in casting Steve Buscemi as the voice of the slithering lizard villain in Monsters, Inc. In both live and CGI form, Buscemi's unique place in cinema comes exclusively from his body language, his herky-jerky tics and shrugs that countervails his hang-dog expressive features to create a visage of a man so desperately vulnerable yet so downright creepy that you want to pound him out of existence to keep him from looking through you. It's a persona that tends to be friendly toward first-time filmmakers 'Â Quentin Tarantino, Simon West, Gary Fleder, Terry Zwigoff, MoisÃ©s Kaufman and Oren Moverman have all enlisted Buscemi's service for their first featuresÂ 'Â since he does so much of the heavy lifting with only his presence.Â
First-timer Hue Rhodes must have known this when he cast Buscemi in Saint John of Las Vegas, which Rhodes also scripted, and it's a smart move. Rhodes' film, in which an insurance adjuster gets an assignment to hit the road and disprove an expensive claim made by a stripper, is as stylistically flat as they come. Of course Buscemi's character, John Alighieri (Saint John is based on Dante's Inferno 'Â and if that ambition doesn't scream, 'debut film,â?� then you're just not listening), encounters go-nowhere quirky characters like a circus freak whose act can't shut itself off, a band of naked guys and a waitress in a wheelchair. Predictably, we watch John descend into the pits of self-despair and confusion, but there are major structural dilemmas with these setups: For one, those crazy situations he finds himself in are always minor inconveniences that he sidesteps with ease. For another, John has no obvious reason to panic along the way. A fraud investigation veteran, Virgil, who, in his own attitudinal way, is quite comforting, is looking after John, in a remarkably bizarre way.Â
As the journey's navigator, Romany Malco is the film's (and Rhodes') saving grace. Best known for his bit part in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Malco has been bubbling to the surface slowly in recent years, stuck in both tedious comedies (Baby Mama, Blades of Glory) and execrable filth (The Love Guru), but somehow always maintains his dignity. Here, Malco's finally given the chance to breathe a little and he crafts Virgil from the bottom up. Alternately exasperated and unmovable, his slick, shady navigator never lets his cards show. And Malco's surrealist personality tics (karate chopping a carnival prize, demanding a 'howdyâ?� from a gas station attendant) remain just to the left of the film enough to kindly avoid hijacking the plot. Instead, Malco adds exactly the kind of quirky seasoning that's so glaringly missing from Rhodes' script and direction.Â
The Buscemi-Malco pair does enough to make what could have been a tone deaf, wannabe Coen Brothers romp into a somewhat enjoyable escapade that, by the end, allows the more ham-fisted aspects of Saint John to melt away.Â
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