OKAY, I ADMIT IT: I've never read Dante's Inferno. And while I'm coming clean, I've never read the Aeneid, or Don Quixote, or The Canterbury Tales, either. (In my defense, I have read two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings, and the novelizations of both Top Gun and Willow.) But I think I know what Inferno is about, or at least I thought I did: A man takes a pleasure cruise through the nine circles of Hell and meets Satan himself—kind of like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with a terrible case of Catholic guilt and scarier Oompa-Loompas.
Writer/director Hue Rhodes' Saint John of Las Vegas is supposedly a retelling of Inferno, with Sin City taking the place of Hell, and if you thought Hunter S. Thompson already tried that idea, well, so did I. Steve Buscemi takes the role of Dante Alighieri (renamed John for some reason), a reformed gambler turned auto insurance adjuster. Along with his partner Virgil (Weeds' Romany Malco, humorlessly deadpan), John's trying to verify a claim on a totaled 1970 Buick Wildcat. The plot isn't as important as the wacky characters they encounter along the way: a wheelchair-bound stripper, a man who spontaneously bursts into flames, and a naked Tim Blake Nelson.
The movie must hew pretty close to the epic poem, though, because parts of it didn't make sense to me, like a framing device set in a gas station convenience store, or John's dalliance with Jill, a woman obsessed with those yellow "Have a Nice Day" smiley faces. She's played by Sarah Silverman, but somehow—amazingly—she's neither funny nor sexually appealing. What strengths the movie does have, and there are some, are entirely due to Buscemi, whose puckered visage provides a wry humor that almost sustains the movie—even if it can't quite turn this slight fable into divine comedy.