Review: A porn star is reborn in the hilarious, harrowing ‘Red Rocket’
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The money shot in “Red Rocket,” Sean Baker’s glorious gutter dive of a movie, is of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) joyously riding his bicycle, his seamily handsome face twisted into a smile of near-sexual bliss. It’s a look we know well by this point: Mikey is a porn star, or at least he was one until recently. But he’s smiling here for a very different, singularly appalling reason, and it’s worth discovering for yourself; suffice to say it has less to do with pleasure than relief. But then, there may be no real difference. Getting away with things, much like getting off, has long been one of this great American hustler’s favorite pastimes.
Mikey seems to be on the run the moment we meet him, riding a bus that will drop him off amid the depopulated streets and smoke-belching oil refineries of Texas City. But he’s also returning to something: This Gulf Coast port city is where he grew up, years before he headed off to Los Angeles to pursue his calling as an adult entertainer. But despite his saber-esque endowment and a raft of porn-industry prizes, Mikey’s back in town, crashing once more with Lexi (Bree Elrod), the wife and former co-star he ditched some time ago. Lexi lives with her mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and they greet him as enthusiastically as they would a termite reinfestation. Broke, desperate, dumb as a stump and persistent as hell, Mikey is bad news through and through.
He’s also surprisingly good company. This is due in part to some of the basic affinities of cinema as a medium, with its soft spot for fast-talking charmers and pathological con men. But most of it has to do with Rex, who throws himself into this role with exuberant commitment, heroic immodesty and all the rude persistence of that battering ram between his legs. Mikey is both loathsome and just short of likable, and you begrudgingly admire the way he never shuts up, never backs down and almost never wears a shirt. The 47-year-old performer playing him has donned several hats over his past couple of decades hovering between the C- and D-lists: actor, comedian, model, MTV video jockey, rap artist. His most famous screen credits include three of the five “Scary Movie” movies; his most notorious are the amateur porn videos he shot in the mid-’90s.
That dabbling aligns Rex with his character to some extent, though Mikey Saber has enjoyed the bigger, longer porn career and (I’m hoping) has endured the rockier, nastier fall. There are scrapes and bruises on Mikey’s body when he turns up on Lexi’s lawn, and they won’t be the last. Still, you don’t exactly fear for his survival. He slips past Lil’s and Lexi’s defenses; a few days at their house soon turns into a few weeks and months, provided he helps out with the rent. He’s less capable when it comes to landing a job, though he does worm his way back into the reluctant good graces of Leondria (Judy Hill), who, with her tough daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez), runs a weed-selling operation out of their backyard.
It took me a beat to remember where I’d seen the remarkable Hill before: in Roberto Minervini’s powerful 2019 documentary, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” which illuminated her experiences as a bar owner, a recovering addict and a forceful advocate for the Black women and men in her fast-gentrifying New Orleans neighborhood. Her presence in “Red Rocket,” playing a fictional character with an unfakable good-humored grit, is perfectly illustrative of Baker’s method. Here, as in his independent features like “Starlet,” “Tangerine” and, supremely, “The Florida Project,” he finds terrific actors — and natural storytellers — in places where Hollywood and even indie movie cameras rarely deign to tread.
And as in those earlier movies, he and his regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch, shine a matter-of-fact light on the realities of American sex work; while they have no use for judgment, they do not rule out the possibilities of humor, horror and outrage. Some of the movie’s more pointed conversations broach the dubious sexual politics of the porn industry, and the story’s most important development offers a pointed corrective to it. When Mikey wanders into a doughnut store one day and meets a red-haired 17-year-old cashier called Strawberry, a name equally suited to pastries and smut, he thinks he’s found his ticket back to California — at which point “Red Rocket” becomes a disquietingly clear-eyed portrait of predatory grooming in action.
But Strawberry, winningly played by the gifted newcomer Suzanna Son, isn’t quite the patsy Mikey assumes. However sweet and naive, she’s more wily than she lets on, and the voraciousness of her own sexual appetite takes even Mikey by surprise. She’s not above using him as much as he uses her, and as their breezy, queasy relationship plays out — between nighttime trysts in her pickup truck and weekend getaways that leave Lexi increasingly suspicious — you wonder how it’s all going to end, other than badly.
You also wonder how the other characters — including Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the friendly sad-sack who lives next door, and Leondria and her band of enforcers — will ultimately deal with this homegrown interloper. “Red Rocket” is both a laser-focused character study and a scrappy, scrupulously observed portrait of a tight-knit community. Mikey might be the first character who pops up when you think back on it, but you will also remember other faces and details: the poignant look of dumb, hangdog loyalty in Lonnie’s eyes; the oil riggers who line up to buy doughnuts and, eventually, some of Mikey’s weed; the quiet but unmistakable mother-daughter intimacy between Lexi and Lil. (Deiss, another Baker find, is a picture of raspy nuance as the mother-in-law who treats Mikey more fairly than he deserves.)
That rich, rough-around-the-edges sense of solidarity — plus the smearily vibrant colors of Drew Daniels’ cinematography, which proves especially alive to the intensity of hot pink frosting and burnt-orange sunsets — makes “Red Rocket” visually and thematically of a piece with Baker’s recent work. (Fun fact: Shih-Ching Tsou, who ran the doughnut store in “Tangerine,” also runs the one here.) If the movie doesn’t achieve the sublimity of “The Florida Project,” it can hardly be faulted for that, anymore than Baker can be faulted for not making one of the American cinema’s most stirringly empathetic and critically incisive portraits of childhood every time he’s at bat.
“Red Rocket,” by contrast, diagnoses what might be described as a condition of permanent, willed stuntedness, a state of emotional, intellectual and moral vacuity that — as sharply and specifically as Mikey embodies it — may not belong to him alone. Here’s where I should mention that this movie takes place in the summer of 2016, as we’re reminded by occasional background blips of Clinton-Trump election coverage. That gives the movie a political edge, and it invites more than one interpretation. Is Mikey a stand-in for the 45th president, with his Teflon resilience and callous disregard for anyone but himself? Or does it make “Red Rocket” a red-state X-ray — a portrait of the ignorance, rage and sense of futility that made great swaths of the American working class susceptible to the machinations of a washed-up celebrity?
Baker is too generous and big-hearted a filmmaker to subscribe completely to this interpretation. But it’s bracing to watch this movie now, five years after the 2016 election, and also to hear ’N Sync’s irresistible “Bye Bye Bye” flood the soundtrack at crucial points. (It also pops up in a low-key, beautifully syncopated cover version performed by Strawberry.) That song got a lot of play in the early 2000s, when Rex was at the height of his own late-20s popularity, and like a lot of things in “Red Rocket” it serves more than one purpose. It’s a kiss-off ballad, a perfect choice for the story of a parasite being expelled. And it’s also a blast from the past, a not-so-fond farewell that, whether juxtaposed with Rex’s sleepy eyes or flopping junk, becomes an anthem of resurrection.
Rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 10 at AMC Burbank 16, AMC Burbank Town Center 6; AMC the Grove 14, Los Angeles; AMC Century City 15
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