Even Steven

Top-billed Buscemi scores in Saint John of Las Vegas
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Fraud inspector John (Steve Buscemi) surveys the desert -- and his life
PHOTO COURTESY OF INDIEVEST PICTURES

arts@sfbg.com

FILM The beautifully complexioned Michael Cera is giving him a run for the scratcher bucks, but I continue to believe in Steve Buscemi as the patron saint of geeks everywhere. Still as bug-eyed and teeth-chatteringly anxious as a terminally neurotic pug — and now slightly thinner of hair and skinnier of bod — Buscemi has been bringing a ravenously hungry Ichabod Crane air to his portraits of suburban angst lately, last witnessed in Youth in Revolt, as Cera's pop in the throes of a midlife crisis. You didn't question Buscemi's pressure-cooker rage at his cinematic offspring's budding rebellion: he's been there and done that, man — and darn if he'll put up with it from his revolting kid.

That cameo was far too brief, so luckily along comes Saint John of Las Vegas to give Buscemi-philes a good long, yummy drink of our nerd overlord. His goofy Mr. Pink anti-cool has weathered nicely into a finely wrinkled facsimile of those nicotine-stained, pompadoured and comb-overed casino codgers you can find dug in on Vegas' Fremont Street.

John's a gambler fed up with the long odds and late nights, running from a vaguely sketchy past, so he has decided to consciously choose the straight path. "I never had a desk job before, but I watched it on TV," goes the opening voice-over. Read: a solid cubicle job at an auto insurance company. Breaks in the off-white monotony are spent flirting with sexy coworker Jill (Sarah Silverman) who has a penchant for slapping smiley faces on everything from her file folders to her fingernails. Apparently John isn't the only one determined to put a happy face on life.

After summoning the courage to make a play for a raise (and Jill), John is enlisted by his tough little man of a boss (Peter Dinklage) to become a fraud inspector. He's placed under the tutelage of Virgil (Romany Malco of Weeds) — this is, after all, very, very loosely based a certain Divine Comedy. Off our would-be pals go on John's tryout case, Virgil aloof and knowing and John empathizing with the many quirky characters they encounter: a naked militant (Tim Blake Nelson) here and a circus performer with an out-of-hand flame suit (John Cho) there.

When their journey ends, you can't help but be disappointed because you really don't want this sweet-natured first film by director-writer and onetime Silicon Valley hotshot Hue Rhodes to end. It's such a treat to watch Buscemi work, pulling the spooky-tooth tics and rattled nerves out of his bag of mannerisms. And it's fitting that he has arrived here, because from its star to its bit players, Saint John offers a gentle Hail Mary to the usually less-than-visible guys and gals in the cameos.

SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

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