Consider an early scene in Saint John of Las Vegas: John (Steve Buscemi), a drone at an insurance company, is called to see his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage). Townsend gives John a chance at a promotion when he assigns him an insurance fraud investigation, for which he is also given a hard-nosed partner, Virgil (Romany Malco). Townsend’s office is jarringly bizarre—painted garish red, with picture frames and desks cramped in front of the walls’ centres, and four Roman pillars around the desk—and as the scene progresses, it also becomes clear that Buscemi, Dinklage, and Malco are never photographed together. Director Hugh Rhodes cuts back and forth between the three actors. The editing, framing, and set design combine to create an odd, alienating effect that pervades the film.

Now consider the next scene. John has learned from Townsend that Jill (Sarah Silverman), his attractive co-worker at the cubicle next door, “likes a good hair pull,” so John hovers behind her and tentatively, almost apologetically tugs her hair before rushing back to his desk. She then reaches her hand into his cubical and taps the wall suggestively, and we see that her fingernails are painted with yellow smiley faces. We later learn that they immediately had sex in the bathroom off-screen.
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This is, for want of a better phrase, the movie’s “love story,” and during his insurance investigation John periodically talks to Jill on the phone, as if to establish their relationship as the story’s emotional centre. Yet while Buscemi and Silverman give surprisingly sincere performances, their characters’ relationship is built upon a comic scene involving a ridiculous sexual fetish, and none of their miniscule screen time together suggests any chemistry. Is Rhodes playing this relationship for laughs? Does he want it to have emotional resonance? Or does he want to have his cake and eat it too?

Saint John of Las Vegas is the type of film that causes one to question over and over again what the director was going for. In scene after scene, game actors stand in Rhodes’ carefully-detailed compositions—often right in the middle of the frame, surrounded by empty space, as if stranded—and deliver ludicrous dialogue with straight faces (“They got this expression in prison: if a cross-dressing skinhead don’t rape you, just take your smokes and don’t ask why”), and the effect is peculiarly unfunny. The deadpan ambience, the deadpan acting, and the deadpan script create an orgy of deadpan, with no two elements generating any comic tension. However, this is not the fault of Buscemi, who, as a recovering gambling addict returning to Las Vegas with great trepidation, is completely believable. With sideburns, heavy bags under his eyes, crooked teeth and a suit jacket/undershirt ensemble, he looks like a cross between Elvis and John Waters.

Some of the comic set pieces are so leaden they practically fall off the screen. A scene in which John and Virgil run afoul of a gang of militant nudists comes with the sinking realization that Rhodes sees the nudists not as a set-up for a joke, but as the joke, period. Ditto a scene where John interviews a circus carnie (John Cho) in a flammable suit. Cho lights the suit over and over and over and over again until a restless audience lowers its estimate of the intrinsic comedic value of flammable suits.

With its slow, strange ambience and its episodic structure, Saint John of Las Vegas reminded me of The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch’s recent attempt to strip the thriller genre down to its most basic elements. In that film, a stoic assassin travels between locations and waits for instructions for most of the two-hour running time. I wonder if Rhodes is attempting something similar with the mismatched-buddy subgenre. Like, say, Rush Hour, this film’s leads are racial and temperamental opposites partnered against their will in a crime-fighting context. In this film, however, they develop no fondness, understanding, or empathy towards each other, and their little episodic misadventures never build. Perhaps Saint John of Las Vegas is a Dadaist prank? Unlikely, I know, but maybe this is what film criticism is for: assigning arbitrary meaning to shaggy dog stories.

Saint John of Las Vegas is now in theatres.