Excavating past celebrities to appear as the unlikely stars of modern-day films has been a fruitful cinematic strategy (see: Travolta, John). Simon Rex, star of the new Sean Baker film Red Rocket, has got to be the most unlikely of an already unlikely bunch. Rex isn’t even primarily remembered as an actor, having also worn the hats of MTV VJ and rapper. He did appear in a handful of Scary Movie movies, part of a cottage industry of performing in parodies, but nothing in his history suggested he was about to be cast in, or was capable of being good in, the latest feature from the critical darling who made Tangerine and The Florida Project.
The decision to cast Rex works. The movie doesn’t. Rex isn’t the problem with Red Rocket, even though his character might be. He creates exactly the type of charming dirtbag Baker likely envisioned us spending 128 minutes with. The fact that Baker thought it was valuable to subject us to more than two hours in this man’s presence is the film’s real problem.
The life of Mikey Saber is very much the sort Baker has asked us to consider in his other works. Baker has made his own cottage industry exploring the lives of downtrodden Americans in a way that is not totally depressing, leavening their experiences with slight humour and moments of quiet transcendence. Each of Baker’s past four films – which include his 2012 film Starlet – have featured characters who perform sex work of some sort or other, and that’s no different for Mikey Saber. In a funny montage of job interviews that all climax, as it were, with the moment that he reveals his past employment, and thereby nixes any chance of getting the job, we learn that Mikey Saber was a porn star. (A career Rex has also dabbled in.) He was a pretty good one, too, as he won multiple AVN awards, sort of the Oscars for adult films.
That’s in the past. Mikey has burned all his LA bridges and is back in his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss) are eking by at the poverty level. Technically speaking, he and Lexi are still married, but she wants nothing to do with him when he turns up on her doorstep. He hopes to sponge off their meagre existence until he can get back on his feet, and because she probably still carries a bit of a torch for him, Lexi reluctantly agrees. Mikey contributes some cash by reviving an old gig selling marijuana, soon paying their entire rent each month.
But Mikey is working in another old gig as well. Ageing porn stars are known for trying to transition into porn impresarios, and Mikey gets the idea he might break The Next Big Thing when he discovers a 17-year-old working in a nearby donut shop (Suzanna Son), who goes by Strawberry because of her red hair. Turns out Strawberry is just as into the idea as he is, and she’s far less innocent than her looks suggest. Her age is a problem when their relationship becomes physical. Also a problem is the fact that he’s sleeping with Lexi as well, while living under her roof, at the same time secretly grooming Strawberry for Hollywood stardom. Or at least, Hollywood adjacent stardom.
There are two big differences between Red Rocket and the considerably more compassionate films Baker became known for, which enmesh with one another in terms of determining the film’s overall impact. One is that no matter how his previous characters have strayed from the straight and narrow, they have remained fundamentally sympathetic. The other is that Red Rocket seems like it’s trying to be a comedy with dramatic elements, rather than a drama with comedic elements. Only in a comedy might it work that Mikey is a self-interested and self-destructive man child, whose primary redeeming quality is that he might be fun to drink beers with for a couple hours. He’s not openly obnoxious and sort of resembles a friendly dog, both in his generally agreeable personality and in his reactions to the needs of his own id.
Never for a moment, though, does it feel like Mikey is doing anything for the right reasons – or even reasons that he thinks might be right. It’s not that he starts out promising a mutually beneficial relationship with Lexi and his mother-in-law, and fails on that path, but that we can see through his intentions even from the start. The most pitiable victim of his thoughtlessness is Lexi, whose nuances are drawn out in an exceptional performance from Elrod. On the surface, she’s no better than he is, and we learn she was also chewed up and spat out by the porn industry a couple years before he was. She’s crude and unrefined for sure. But when Elrod gets that little look of hope in her eye of something real with Mikey, having lost a vicious battle against her own better judgement, it makes his careless usage of her seem all the more sinister.
It’s hard to know what Baker wants to say about this character or with the film in general. It’s pointedly set in the summer of 2016, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were vying for the U.S. presidency, but Baker has never been keen to make a topical or satirical point about the America he observes. If Mikey is supposed to represent some Trumpian notion of a will to self-actualisation – in other words, the American dream – then that’s the sort of criticism that might resonate with the film’s most likely audience. It also might seem too obvious by half. Baker’s camera has always been non-judgemental toward the characters it captures, but perhaps this was a time to definitively step in and repudiate what Mikey represents, rather than delivering him up as some sort of viewer surrogate for two hours.
Because the film is betwixt and between on what it wants to say, the comedy doesn’t land either. There’s a bit where Mikey is chased out of his bed without a stitch of clothing, and runs through the streets naked, his masculine endowment bouncing up and down. It’s clearly supposed to be a laugh moment, but either because this is the sort of thing we’ve seen before (a memorable moment in Alexander Payne’s Sideways comes to mind), or because we just aren’t in the humourous mood Baker sought to create, it falls flat.
By the time Red Rocket grinds on at least 15 minutes longer than it should, drawing out the logistics of an ending whose details could have been inferred, any shreds of remaining hope for the film have been lost. Red Rocket reminds us what Baker can do as a filmmaker, and what we might never have known Rex could do. But it doesn’t have a heart, which makes it a pretty hopeless affair indeed.
Red Rocket opens today in cinemas.