All About Steve

The essential Buscemi-ness of Saint John of Las Vegas. The mildewed ominousness of Terribly Happy.

John Alighieri, aka Saint John of Las Vegas, has a weakness. Maybe more than one.

For starters, he’s a degenerate gambler, a hopeless sucker for putting his money down on foolish propositions. John (Steve Buscemi) is the type of guy who will pull into a service station with his last twenty-dollar bill, go up to the cashier to buy five bucks’ worth of gas, then spend the entire twenty on a handful of those colorful scratch-off Lotto tickets that crop up like weeds along the interstates, beguiling hard-luck guys with instant-millionaire dreams.

John has dreams, too. Cheap ones. Upon finding himself in Albuquerque, he takes a job in a beat-out auto insurance brokerage, where he cowers in his cubicle and tries — really tries, for about five minutes — to avoid getting involved in a sex-and-donuts thing with Jill (Sarah Silverman), the giant leering woman who prowls the office putting up smiley-face stickers. She could break him in half, but he seems oblivious to the danger.

Meanwhile, the enigmatic bantam-rooster boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), takes a liking to John for some reason and offers him a chance for advancement. John is to go out on the road with the company’s top fraud investigator, Virgil (Romany Malco), to help him catch insurance cheats and learn the business, as well as soak up a little Sun Belt torpor.

Their itinerary takes them through New Mexico and Arizona and into Nevada. That puts John on a collision course with Las Vegas, the place he’s trying to avoid, the place where all the things he can’t resist call out to him like sirens. The picaresque framework also gives writer-director Hue Rhodes the opportunity to haul out a lineup of screw-loose characters and situations, not least of which is Saint John himself.

It’s a relief to see Steve Buscemi reveling in his essential Buscemi-ness again. The 52-year-old actor, who has appeared in more than a hundred movies and TV episodes since 1985, burst onto the scene as an archetypal urban neighborhood character: the loser who never believes he’s finished, with a wise mouth that never quits. Buscemi’s lopsided features and nonstop nervous banter made him the undisputed king of Lower Manhattan hipster flicks in the Eighties and Nineties (Parker Posey was the queen), and he’s been inching his way into the mainstream ever since. The key word is “inching.”

A few recent Buscemi roles — The Messenger and Youth in Revolt, in particular — have cast him as a grouchy, middle-class suburbanite, of all things. Steve Buscemi should never play an ordinary citizen. He should never play somebody’s dad. There should be a clause in his contract that prohibits his character from watering lawns.

His very best parts — in Mystery Train, In the Soup, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, the incomparable Trees Lounge, Coffee and Cigarettes, as Tony Blundetto on The Sopranos, and even as the frantic sidekick in Armageddon — have relied on his essential untrustworthiness in tandem with his Italian-American corner-boy charm. His best friends should be shylocks and nurses who sell pills on the side, not GI Joes and cookie bakers. Saint John is more like it. A guy who can stagger into a mini-mart with his suit torn up and his face a mass of contusions, and plunk down $1,000 in cash for 1,000 Instant Jackpot Madness tickets, is a character we can invest in.

On the trail of a phony Buick Wildcat rear-end collision claim, John and Virgil zigzag their way across the Southwest’s underbelly, from a junkyard to a strip club (Emmanuelle Chriqui as lap dancer Ms. Tasty D. Lite) to a carnival sideshow (John Cho as the Flame Lord, a hapless daredevil) to a nudist camp, on the way to John’s epiphany at Ocean’s 11, a cheapo Vegas casino. The further John travels from his nine-to-five Squaresville existence, the more he relates to the people he meets.

True, Saint John of Las Vegas is slackly written, artificially episodic, and plagued by rookie filmmaker Rhodes’ faulty pacing. But Rhodes, a former software executive turned entertainer, at least has the wisdom to turn his star loose. John’s last name notwithstanding, his journey through the underworld is not exactly a divine comedy. It’s not in the top 50 percent of Buscemi movies, either, but it’s not bad.

Whatever luster last year’s excellent war adventure Flame and Citron gave the Danish film industry, Henrik Ruben Genz’ Terribly Happy squanders.

The 2008 film was originally titled Frygtelig lykkelig, which must have been fun for movie-ticket buyers in Copenhagen to say when they walked up to the box office. That fun evaporates, however, as the story of big-city policeman Robert Hansen (played by Jakob Cedergren) unspools. Like unlucky cops before him in countless crime flicks, Hansen is being punished for his role in a violent incident by being exiled — in his case to the dismal village of Skarrild in the low, damp, flat landscape of South Jutland, Denmark, where the only distinguishing topographical feature is the nearby bog. How many of the film’s characters will disappear into that bog?

The townsfolk are surly to the extreme. Despite the new constable’s initial friendliness, the only kindness he can scare up among the locals comes from Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), horny wife of the town bully, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). We can guess where that is leading. The rest of the townsfolk are no help. The village doctor (Lars Brygmann) has a weird manner, and the elderly card players at the Skarrild general store mostly squint and grumble. The only child in town, little Dorthe (Mathilde Maack), daughter of Ingerlise and Jørgen, is fond of pushing her baby carriage, the one with the squeaky wheels, up and down the street in the middle of the night. “People disappear here,” mutters one old man ominously to Officer Hansen. You betcha.

No surprise, then, that characters begin to get bumped off. With its scattershot echoes of Twin Peaks, Bad Day at Black Rock, and, somewhere in the far distance, director Carl Dreyer, Terribly Happy tortures its running time mercilessly. We can spot every single plot turn coming across the tidelands from five kilometers away. Certainly someone deserves to get shot. In a more equitable world, the primary suspect would be director Genz, who adapted the mildewed screenplay with Dunja Gry Jensen, from Erling Jepsen’s novel.


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