For a while, I liked Red Rocket. Then the lead character does something despicable and suddenly I loved it. That might sound weird. Mikey Saber (played by Simon Rex) is not a good man. In fact, he's pretty much a sleazebag who shamelessly uses other people. The film, directed by The Florida Project's Sean Baker, is all about his twisted psychology. Once we begin to see what he's truly capable of, an already interesting story becomes thoroughly riveting.
Mikey is a former porn star whose career has taken a sharp downturn. He shows up on the front porch of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), asking for “a place to crash” for a few days. Lexi reluctantly allows it, only to quickly realize that he has no intention of leaving now that he has a foot in the door. Eventually, he even coaxes her back into bed with false promises of having changed. Mikey makes some cash by peddling weed for a local dealer, and his free time is spent impressing a doofus neighbor with exaggerated tales of life in the adult film industry.
Then it happens. Mikey wanders into a donut shop where a cute, perky 17-year-old girl named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) works. He flirts with her incessantly and she, flattered by an older man's attention, flirts back. There is a catch. Mikey believes she could be trained to become the Next Big Thing in porn, i.e his newest meal ticket. To that end, he coaches her in sexuality, filling her head with fantasies about what their life together could be like. From there, Red Rocket traces their relationship and how Mikey's perpetual screw-up ways threaten to pull Strawberry down with him.
Why would you want to watch a movie about a guy like this? For starters, it's pretty funny at times. Mikey is such a (pardon the expression) dipshit that seeing him repeatedly get into trouble offers a pleasurable feeling of schadenfreude. Self-destructive people are inherently fascinating anyway, so that's another bonus. Mostly, though, Simon Rex is so good at bringing out Mikey's motor-mouthed narcissism that you can't look away. In his hands, you can see where, under different circumstances, this guy might have been charming. He knows how to quickly read people and put himself on their wavelength. It's a magnificent performance. Actually, it's more than a performance, it's a complete dissection of a personality disorder.
Red Rocket is also an incisive film about self-absorption. Baker chooses to set the story during the 2016 presidential election. In the first few minutes, Mikey walks past a Trump billboard, and the former president's voice is often heard on televisions, ranting and raving about how the primary may be “rigged” to prevent him from getting the Republican nomination. While the movie itself is not overtly political – and Baker has publicly stated a desire to avoid infusing partisanship into his work -- it's not hard to infer that this is intended to underline the theme of toxic personalities. Mikey, like Trump, tells people what they want to hear and works to figure out how others can benefit his own interests. The two men are different in circumstance, similar in temperament.
The best thing in Red Rocket is Suzanna Son. This newcomer actress absolutely lights the movie on fire with her work as Strawberry. She deftly avoids Lolita clichés, making the character someone with a naughty side waiting to come out. Once she meets Mikey, that instantly happens. But it might just be playtime for her, even as he means business, a fact that injects tension into the picture. Son does layered work in the role, and also gets the film's signature scene – a post-coital rendition of a N*Sync's “Bye Bye Bye” that's shockingly tender amid everything we've seen by this point.
Red Rocket is full of sexual content, and obviously the idea of an adult male grooming a teenage girl will rub many people the wrong way. It's supposed to. As Roger Ebert used to say, “It's not what a film is about, it's how it is about it.” This particular film deals with a guy who's past his prime in his chosen profession and now must find people with coattails he can ride. On that subject, Baker has made a work that's an unusual combination of funny and disturbing, yet also undeniably wise about the mindset that drives people like Mikey.
He's a loser, knows it, and is terrified of that being exposed to others.
out of four
Red Rocket is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.