People need characters that are likable and have admirable qualities. These unruly times call for fictional gadabouts, like the opportunistic washed-up porn star played by Simon Rex in Sean Baker’s spiky comedyRed RocketRex portrays Mikey Saber, a man we only know as Mikey. Rex’s real name has been lost in the mists. He only knows his identity as the one that he (and his prodigious friend) created through a series, according to his, very popular porn videos. He’s recklessly handsome, with piercing greenish eyes, a V-shaped torso and a matinee idol’s jawline. But Mikey has fallen on hard times—we don’t know how or why—and, having taken the bus from L.A., he shows up in his Gulf Coast hometown of Texas City, Texas, a place where almost nobody is happy to see him. He’s a classic modern American antihero, both rootless and sure of who he is. Although his behavior may be reprehensible at times, his charm is unmistakable.
Red RocketThis is Baker’s seventh feature, which was his 2015 breakout. Tangerine—a raucous yet intimate everyday story of sex workers, trans women and doughnuts, co-written by Chris Bergoch—was one of the most exuberant films of that year. (Famously, it was shot on iPhone 5s fitted with special anamorphic lenses, though it was so big and whole that it never felt anything less than a “real” movie.) This is the portrait of an ordinary human struggling to make ends meet. Red Rocket—also cowritten by Bergoch—is something of a companion piece to that film, though it doesn’t have the same underdog vibrancy. It also seems veiled by a fine scrim of self-awareness, though that’s probably the sort of thing no filmmaker can help once his movies start earning the acclaim that Baker’s have. His 2017 film Florida Project was a critics’ favorite, and Willem Dafoe’s terrific supporting performance earned an Academy Award nomination.)
Baker is able to seduce us from the very first frame. As Mikey rides on a bus through oil refineries, he passes various scrubby landscapes before landing on the doorstep of Lexi (Bree Elrod), his ex-wife and co-star in some of his porn movies. Her eyes are filled with daggers-of death, which give an indication of her feelings for him. And though we don’t have all the details, we don’t wonder why: His face is bruised, and he arrives without even a duffle bag. All he’s got are the clothes on his back—a tank top and ill-fitting tight pants—a couple of bucks, and a cell phone. What’s this guy’s deal? Don’t you wanna know?
Mikey is desperate to get back into Lexi’s good graces, which also means insinuating his way into her bed. Brenda Deiss, his mother in-law plays him. Mikey offers to win her back with a yard sale ashtray. But she prefers it when he pays rent. Without a vehicle of his own, Mikey toodles about town on a tiny bike. And just as Mikey seems to be getting his life together—something he appears to be incapable of doing unless the women around him work overtime to help—he falls hard for Raylee (Susanna Son), the delectable red-headed counter girl at a local doughnut shop. He seduces her. (He seems to be in his late 40s; she turns out that he is only a few months shy of 18). When he discovers her name is Strawberry, his face lights up in silent joy. He’s already figuring out how he can market that.
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What follows isn’t a love story, but more a tale of a guy for whom everything—sex, love, weed, loyalty—is transactional. Baker has his movie set in 2016 when Hillary Clinton (and Donald Trump) accept their nominations. This may be a nod to the dawn of an era, the era where wheeler-dealers will do what it takes for success. Mikey is something of a terrible person, though Baker gives his characters enough dimension that it’s not easy to plunk them into easy predator or victim categories. Strawberry, young as she is, has a clear sense of what she wants out of life, and though she may be temporarily under Mikey’s spell, her arc opens the door to another potential story, one of who’s-usin’-who. Son’s performance is wonderful: she’s fresh and sunny, all right, but she’s like a daisy with a tough little fringe of ambition.
Baker’s specialty is telling complex stories about people who might be seen as somehow living on the edge of society. That’s definitely Mikey. He’s charming when he needs to be, and far more optimistic than most mere mortals. His eyes are still cold when he notices that his plans have gone awry. Simon Rex was an actor for over a decade, appearing on TV, in comedy sketches, and even in the Scary Movie series. He’s a sometime rapper, and he’s worked as a model and MTV VJ. In late 1990s, he appeared under another alias on several solo-masturbation video. This is a fascinating video, as his quicksilver moves from charming to alarming are remarkable. Red Rocket isn’t the warmest of Baker’s films; it has a flinty edge that makes it hard to embrace. But as movie characters go, Rex’s Mikey, a magnetic egomaniac, is an extraordinary creation. He gets us on his side so easily, only to leave us there, sleeping on the wet spot, realizing we’ve gotten into bed with the totally wrong dude.