Review: Red Rocket

It was obviously going to be a tall order for director Sean Baker to top or even equal his last film, The Florida Project, an epic exploration of 21st century survivalist poverty in the capitalist milieu represented by the titular state’s reliance on Disney Enterprises, and Red Rocket certainly maintains his cred as the most compelling chronicler of the American socioeconomic underbelly in that he evokes true empathy with his characters, regardless of their shortcomings. Our protagonist, the former L.A. porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), is from the get-go a morally compromised individual, showing up shirtless and bloodied at the broken-down mid-Texas bungalow home of his estranged wife and former AV partner Lexi (Bree Elrod) and meth-head mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), begging for succor. Neither woman wants to accommodate him, but he’s a charmer in his own snakelike fashion and eventually gets a shower, and then some clothes, and then food and a place to sleep.

Mikey is in almost every scene of Red Rocket, which passes itself off as a comedy in much the same way that Baker’s earlier film, Tangerine, did, which is to say it looks squarely at the ridiculousness of the situations that Mikey, a preternaturally unsympathetic hero, repeatedly places himself in. Though it’s not entirely clear why Mikey had to leave L.A. in such a state, he reacclimatizes to his old home town quickly, using his native smarts and bullshit talents to ingratiate himself into the lives of other folks who, given time to think matters out clearly, wouldn’t normally give Mikey the time of day. After failing to secure a legitimate job, he drops in an old acquaintance, Leondria (Judy Hill), who deals marijuana, and starts selling her wares to guys at the local oil refinery despite Leondria’s warnings to stay away from “big oil.” Quickly reestablishing himself as a player with money to burn, he starts paying rent at Lexi’s, treats his shy, ne’er-do-well neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) to strip club sojourns, and plans his return to Hollywood in various nefarious ways, the most serious of which is to sponsor a teenage donut shop employee, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), as a porn ingenue once she turns 18. 

Except for Lonnie, who worships Mikey and hangs breathlessly on all of his tall tales of swordsmanship, everyone sees through his veneer of scalliwaggery, including Strawberry, whose willingness to have regular sex with someone more than twice her age has less to do with exploiting her own seductive powers than with what appears to be a real desire to remake Mikey into her own ideal. In the scheme of things, we endure much of Mikey’s hot air in anticipation of his comeuppance, and it’s something of a slog, not because Baker’s direction is slow—it’s some of the most assured work he’s ever done—but because the character just isn’t that interesting. He’s a type we’re too familiar with, and while Rex does imbue him with a distinct personality, Mikey’s shtick is essentially something you’re asked to put up with. When the just deserts are served—on a platter of cliche, no less—you wonder why it took so long. 

Opens April 21 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Red Rocket home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Red Rocket Productions LLC

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