Red Rocket adds to the subgenre of movies featuring the self-centered, sociopathic and chatty who spend their life caring about their appearances and/or charm. In this movie, the main character Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former porn star, is pretty good-looking for someone who is about to hit 50 and lived 20 reckless years. Mikey is not certain about the reason he returns to his hometown, Texas City, Texas, but from the pieces of the backstory he reveals among brags and lies and mind games, he did not willingly leave Los Angeles. He comes to Texas wanting to forget the past and start a new journey, such an American dream.
Mikey comes to a bungalow near a refinery. Living there is Lexi (Bree Elrod), his estranged wife and former porn partner, and her mother (Brenda Deiss). Refusing to enter the house, Mikey tries to get Lexi’s sympathy hoping to get inside to take a shower and borrow any gender-neutral clothes Lexi has. Soon enough, Mikey rides her borrowed bike to job interviews, and after a series of turndowns, he finally gets a job as a dealer for a weed business by Leondria (Judy Hill) and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez). He starts a plan for a future where he will return to Los Angeles to regain his glory.
Mikey is the kind of person who can say he paid an unexpected visit to his loved one’s house carrying only clothes on his back, speaking in a literal manner instead of figurative. From Red Rocket, we understand that this is the way Mikey is. Mikey is an opportunistic person who takes advantage of others’ trust. Mikey is full of lies, whether it is his assumed fame (“81% click-through rate” videos, as he claims) or even his erections (thanks to boner pills). He constantly messes up things and then runs away from the disaster, managing to get all the money, pot, sex, transportation or shelter he wants.
Director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, his frequent co-writer have made several realistic movies that focus on the rainbow coalition of the American lower class with Red Rocket being the latest addition to this library. It’s Mikey’s audacity and others’ reactions to it that cracks the audience up.
However, looking from certain points, the movie ranks lowest on the list.
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The midsection of this lengthy movie is monotonous and tedious with Mikey lures Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a freckle-faced 17-year-old who works at a donut shop, and persuades her to come to LA with him to become a porn star. In the sexually visual Red Rocket, audiences also see Mikey’s middle-aged, borderline pedo-pimp obsession with Strawberry, which they need to first affirm before they could mediate. Also, the writing of Strawberry doesn’t really tell if she is a waif-fatale who is sexually precocious and manipulative, i.e. another Mikey being created, or if she only pretends like that to excite Mikey and feel audacious.
Baker and Rex create Mikey to be a con man who thinks of himself as an overgrown boy with a huge tool and a sweet face but will mess up your life and doesn’t even care. There is a scene in the script that is bluntly figurative, which is the one during the presidential campaign of 2016. In the scene, the spirit of Donald Trump, Mikey Saber’s embodiment of both business and politics, is vivid. However, as we discover later, the script doesn’t offer much further than that first impression. Much like other movies of this vein like Mississippi Grind and Roger Dodger and the Safdie brothers’ works, Red Rocket does nothing more than trying to peel a spoiled onion. The next layer is always slime.
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However, the opening and ending sections of the movie are such perfect gadgets for black-comedy. Watching them unreel gives audiences a dizzy experience, just like the ride on a rollercoaster Mikey and Strawberry take.
Though having several errors, Red Rocket is still the best movie Baker’s directed so far, given how economical he is in establishing each milestone of the story, often by opening and ending a scene with two or three shots which are delicately choreographed but humble. Baker creates a pseudo-epic feeling using the wide-and-narrow angle. Undistinguished highways, together with flat grasslands and flaming oil refineries are observed when something heroic is taking place, which is even more hilarious when Mikey messes up and doubles down.
The cast (with only a few professionals and many newbies) is arranged against real-life locations that highlight Mikey’s planning, messing up and hustling in the context of a shrinking America. The travel of Mikey takes him through the gutters of a nation where there are people having much more than necessary while others can be homeless due to a layoff or diagnosis. This situation can make it easier to understand why Mikey would be desperate to enjoy any pleasure and joy that he can grab.
Drew Daniels (“Waves”) is the cinematographer of Red Rocket, and he uses 16 mm film to shoot the whole movie. This film gives creamy/grainy images that reminds us of the 1970s fascinating bastard movies, which Baker and his colleagues must have studied. Take Joe Buck (Midnight Cowboy) and the protagonist of Hud (a modern western movie), both are Texans, and then hit them in the head with a big cartoon mallet, you will get Mikey. He has become a six-foot, two-inch walking version of his head, what he used to live on but doesn’t work anymore unless it is filled with drugs.
The disaster that ignites the domino-chain of Mikey’s retribution in the third act is one prime example of how the cosmos sends the screwup a metaphor for their life but they just ignore it due to their lacking self-consciousness. Mikey somewhat resembles that film noir grifter who dies under a “Dead End” street sign, saying his last words “I didn’t realize this was a cul-de-sac.”
If an animal can compete for the Oscar’s Best Supporting Actor, Lexi’s shiner-eyed bulldog would be a nominee. There are times when audiences think they have been cracked up enough from the main character’s escalating distress and it couldn’t get funnier, the movie cuts to the dog staring at Mikey, as if the man doesn’t know himself as much as the dog.
Red Rocket is now available in select theaters.