Sean Baker’s trash, vaudeville, and soft-core politics
At the beginning of Texasville, Jeff Bridges’s middle-aged entrepreneur character Duane slumps in his backyard swimming pool and points a gun at his groin. “I’m thinking about shooting my pecker,” he drawls. “It’s done nothing but get me in trouble all my life.”
In Red Rocket, Simon Rex plays Mikey Saber, a past-prime Lone State stud who doesn’t realize he’s headed toward Duane’s regret. That’s because director-writer Sean Baker conceived Mikey solely in terms of his lower region. The film’s rude title doesn’t just equate Mikey to a thing but specifically to a dog’s inflamed member. Pointless arousal and mischievous abuse describe Baker’s comic cosmic vision.
Baker’s outlaw cinema specializes in special-interest groups: the transgender, welfare-state, sex-worker “communities” that are the object of pandering progressives and the darlings of liberal media. He brings such undeniable energy and humor to his lowlife tales — Tangerine, The Florida Project, and now Red Rocket — that it’s easy to think he likes his subjects. After all, they’re portrayed not as America’s “deplorables” but its “underserved” — the folks that politicians praise as examples of diversity, about whom liberal Hollywood feels pity and superiority.
Red Rocket would seem dehumanizing and despicable if not for Rex’s three-dimensional portrait of Mikey’s outlawry; flaunting head-banger’s stupidity, misused charm, and misguided talents to full effect.
A victim of his redneck origins — thus his fate, Baker implies — Mikey returns to his hometown from the West Coast following a jail stint and curtailed porn stardom. While scheming a career comeback, he first sponges off the ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) whom he dutifully bonks after popping a “magic blue pill,” his toothless ex-mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Daiss), and a neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) as luckless as himself but not handsome. Mikey latches onto an easily corruptible 17-year-old donut-shop waitress Strawberry (Suzanna Son) as if reliving his own lapsed innocence. His aim to make her the next porn nymphet (and meal ticket) taints this character study. (Mikey’s flirty lewdness with Strawberry ignores the inevitable porn industry tragedy dramatized in Justin Kelly’s King Cobra.)
Red Rocket isn’t the Texasville sequel that Jeff Bridges and Peter Bogdanovich long planned as a The Last Picture Show trilogy; Baker skips their emotional amplitude. His bailiwick is seamy realism, walking the edge of soft-core as lowlife exploiter Larry Clark did with Kids, but never transcending it. Instead, Baker does trash-and-vaudeville as in his demotic fashion ad Khaite FW21. Heir to the debauchery once celebrated in Nan Goldin and Larry Clark’s art-photography, Baker’s rowdy humor revels in “lived experience” as routinely claimed for minorities.
Baker’s prurient take on the modern demimonde has made him a media darling, but that amorality was recently rectified in Bob Dylan’s shocking “Black Rider” lyric, “The size of your cock will get you nowhere.” Red Rocket would be a better movie if Mikey heard or Baker heeded it. But Baker avoids Dylan’s shock and settles for shallow jolts. Simon Rex’s self-critical performance is half-deep, confronting his own MTV VJ and porn past similar to how Melanie Griffith jump-started her usual indolence in Clark’s Another Day in Paradise.
Rather than going deeper, Baker subjects Mikey to strange comeuppance from a family of mixed-race wastrels. This follows a brief TV clip of Donald Trump saying, “I think the election will be rigged,” obviously from 2016. Making unsubtle, faulty linkage between Orange Man arrogance and Red Rocket egotism is Baker’s real judgment. Red Rocket’s class exploitation mixes charm and contempt, uniting the country through Baker’s soft-core vision of American losers.