Former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) might be “blessed” — at least according to the sore underage girl he’s grooming during a post-coital chat in the flatbed of her pickup truck — but the reality of the situation is that the guy is nothing less than a living curse. He’s a big-dicked, self-obsessed, hyper-opportunistic hex of a man whose puppy dog con artist schtick is so transparent that even naive teenagers can see right through it, which is exactly why people lower their guard and let him. Into their houses; into their panties; into their dreams for the future that Mikey incepts into their heads for his own benefit. And he doesn’t stop trying to weasel his way deeper into any of those things for a single minute of Sean Baker’s utterly singular and weirdly lovable “Red Rocket,” a roman candle of a movie that wonders if America’s pathological narcissism will ever burn itself out.
It begins with the blaring shriek of NSYNC’s ear-piercing masterpiece “Bye Bye Bye” as a black-eyed Mikey suffers through the long bus ride of shame from California to Texas; from the “who am I here to fuck?” hedonism of the San Fernando Valley to the “why the fuck am I here?” industrial wasteland of Refinery Row. But Mikey isn’t leaving anyone behind so much as he’s coming back home with his tail between his legs (the words “red rocket” are never mentioned in the film, but it doesn’t seem coincidental that the phrase is slang for a dog’s erection).
Baker isn’t beating a similar retreat. While “Red Rocket” continues the “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” filmmaker’s hot streak of unpatronizing, street-level stories about sex work in the survival economy, the movie immediately establishes a new visual approach to that familiar terrain. Here, Baker ditches the corporate utopia of Disney World in favor of a more rustic vision of the American Dream, exchanging the ultra-real harshness of his recent films in favor of a 16mm fuzz that combines the velvet touch of early Spielberg with the invasive eroticism of Italian exploitation (Baker cites “The Italian Connection” and “Spasmo” as specific touchstones). “Red Rocket” may be set in the months leading up to the 2016 election — a clever move that allows Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch to borrow Trump symbology without having to deal with COVID — but the film rejects the unavoidable nowness of the director’s recent hits. It’s a story about people who are stuck in a purgatory that’s older than time itself. Some people can survive in an environment like that. Mikey is not one of those people.
From the moment he starts banging on the door of the house where his estranged wife Lexi (theater actress Bree Elrod) still lives with her no-nonsense mother Lil (Brenda Deiss, a phenomenal local discovery who Baker spotted outside of a Porta Potty), it’s clear that Mikey will choke to death if he stays in Texas City for a minute longer than it takes him to get back on his feet. Lexi and Lil might kill him themselves before Mikey even gets that far. But what starts as “just a shower and a place to crash” soon turns into “let me sleep on the couch semi-permanently if I pay $200 a week.” And when Mikey inevitably worms his way back into Lexi’s everything and begins to sense that she might want him to stick around, our boy leverages her feelings for his own gain.
It seems that’s all he’s ever done with anyone’s feelings, or will ever be able to do. And suckers are born every minute. Mikey is a larger-than-life suitcase pimp whose origin story probably involves Bradley Cooper’s character from “Silver Linings Playbook” stepping into the same telepod with Howie Bling and Tim Robinson, and he never stops working the angles. He talks Lexi’s weirdo neighbor Lonnie (played to perfection by local chef Ethan Darbone) into driving him around, and then lands a job selling weed for local queenpin Leondria (who Baker first noticed as a striving restaurateur in Roberto Minervini’s documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?”).
But things don’t really turn around until he sees the girl working behind the counter at the Donut Hole in front of the refineries, where it stands out like an oasis on the lip of hell. Her name is Strawberry (a heartbreaking Suzanna Son, who Baker discovered across the lobby at an Arclight screening of Gus Van Sant’s otherwise forgotten “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”), she’s a freckled redhead nymphette who knows everything and nothing about the world at the same time, and she’s three weeks shy of her 18th birthday. You can practically see the cartoon dollar signs in Mikey’s eyes the first time they lock onto her. Maybe she’ll be the one who gets him to cut the shit, or maybe she’ll be the one to show us that he’s actually just made of shit all the way down.
Baker leaves us to wrestle with that until the bitter end, as he and Rex leave just enough space for the light to get in even as the collateral damage from cyclone Mikey grows worse. Considering that “Red Rocket” is only a stone’s throw and a few thousand miles away from the likes of Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” it’s easy to imagine how the Hollywood version of this story would make Mikey more likeable as the movie went along. Baker goes the other way, constantly forcing us to confront the fact that we’re still invested in the character’s success, or at least in his redemption. You don’t root for Mikey, exactly, but his “too big for this town” energy is disarmingly funny — watching the wide-eyed Mikey pedal around Texas City on a tiny bike gets a laugh every time — the deeper he digs himself into a hole of his own making, the more anxious you are for the hand of God to reach out and pull him back up to the earth. Anything can happen in the movies, and this one only gets lighter on its feet as it casually sours into a tragicomedy.
“Red Rocket” is so arresting because of how it keeps hope alive by rescuing devastation from the jaws of happiness. Rex, a C-level celebrity whose past lives on the Hollywood merry-go-round include stints as a Hollywood VJ, a rapper named Dirt Nasty, a solo porn performer (whose dick probably never expected to be projected onto the screen of the Grand Lumière Theater at Cannes), and an actor whose body of work includes four episodes of “Felicity,” the last three entries in the “Scary Movie” franchise, and something called “Adventures of Justice — Farce Wars.” No judgement here; it’s a tough business, and I’m sure this job has required me to see worse.
Nevertheless, you can feel that the 46-year-old Rex isn’t quite ready to embrace the idea of becoming a Tarantino-esque reclamation project. His performance as Mikey is the work of someone who’s still holding out hope that he’ll be a leading man someday; that the “guys who look exactly like Bradley Cooper” niche is big enough for two people, and that “Red Rocket” might have the potential to play like “A Star Is Porn.” Either that, or it’s the work of a brilliant opportunist who just became a leading man by refusing to play the biggest role of his career any other way. While Rex never once flinches away from what Baker and Bergoch’s script asks of him, there’s a palpable sense that he refuses to accept Mike’s inherent unlikeability — not as an acting choice, but out of a more personal need to believe in him.
Like another famous narcissist who loves porn stars, has less money than you’d think, and will ruin the life of anybody who gives him the chance without blinking, Mikey is an oddly hypnotic cocktail of harmlessness and malice. It’s hard to be sure of his tone even when he’s deadly certain about it, and easy to laugh at him in the moments when he can’t hear himself clearly. The note of complete sincerity he strikes in the scene when he confronts Strawberry’s high school boyfriend by yelling that he “Can’t compete with someone who fucked 1,300 bitches!” is the stuff that movie stars are made of, even if — or especially because — Rex leaves us uncertain of whether or not he can hear the ridiculousness of that line.
Either way, that scent of obliviousness works to the movie’s advantage, as Mikey’s sociopathy isolates him at every turn. “As long as you’re not hurting anybody,” someone says, “you do you,” but he does virtually nothing else. His self-absorption is like a superpower, and he gets stronger the more impenetrable it gets; Mikey insists that all of his award-winning blowjob scenes belonged to him more than the female talent featured in them, and even laments how the most tragic part of Paul Walker’s death was that he couldn’t star in more “Fast & Furious” porn spoofs.
Which is not to suggest that Mikey changes all that much over the course of the movie, or that narcissists change all that much over the course of a lifetime. In fact, “Red Rocket” remains such a blisteringly raw and febrile character study because of how things fluctuate along the fixed orbit of its star. There’s only so much bullshit people can take, even in a state that’s about to vote for Trump, and some of the women in Mikey’s life aren’t willing to be jerked around anymore. If the film’s abrupt conclusion leaves just a bit too much meat on the bone and fails to square with the denialism that has come to dominate American politics in the last half-decade, well, it’s nice to think that some people are still looking out for each other in a world where so many others will never see past the tip of their own dick.
“Red Rocket” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will distribute it in the United States.