Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) speaks in a rhythm of constant, caffeinated misery — a docent of desperation and deception. He should be depressed to find himself once again aboard the bus headed for Texas City, Texas. The 47-year-old is about to re-enter the orbit of his hometown with a soft landing after the hard end to his porn-star career (such as it was, AVN Award notwithstanding). Instead, there’s the slightest smile on his face as Mikey disembarks the bus, with *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” blaring over the soundtrack. There’s something sweet to him about inhaling that industrialized air. Texas City’s blue-collar labor might be slowly dying, but Mikey is a one-man cottage industry of well-spun bullshit and bluster, and the odyssey he takes in Red Rocket will be his disasterpiece. (The film opens on December 24 at both Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema and at Living Room Theaters.)
This silver-tongued, star-spangled swan dive into self-delusional splendor takes a sharp turn from director / co-writer Sean Baker’s work on The Florida Project, in the sense that there is no grace or delivery from this Gulf Coastal desolation row (in which the details of subsistence squalor are distressingly accurate). And in its main plot turn, Baker lets loose his taste for other people’s more exploitative films. Sure, the pot that Mikey pushes (with a combo meal of synthetic piss to help the construction workers pass any impromptu tests) counts for considerable walking-around money in Texas City. But it’s not until he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old redhead working at the Donut Hole. “There’s your change,” she says to him in a complete innocuous tone, but Mikey hears it in the other sense of the word — that she will somehow be his ticket back into the adult-film industry … if only he can properly seduce her. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch let us see Strawberry’s talents as a singer and the husk Mikey left with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), so we know the low point where this is likely to wind up should Strawberry say yes.
Baker and Bergoch also know we are essentially two nations under smog, easily divisible, with misery (and rarely justice) for all. And for as raucously funny as Red Rocket can be, there’s also a despondency about the proxy parable it paints for American disposability. Mikey is watching you-know-who on TV peddle the huckster hustle of room for believers, dreamers and strivers in our nation at the 2016 Republican National Convention while he’s rolling a ditchweed doobie. Mikey sleeps naked not out of comfort but as a form of currency to which he’s accustomed. The people who kick his ass (and not unreasonably) in the Donut Hole parking lot will see that as a highpoint not of their day but perhaps of their lives. A cast-aside crack about Lexi’s activity on Craigslist reveals the darkness lurking beneath the broad and often very shiny surface of Baker’s film, which doesn’t demonize these folks so much as depict the demoralizing domino effect that knocks their self-awareness and better judgment down to the studs.
It’s also relentlessly driven by Mikey’s narcissistic mega-wattage, dimmed only in the rare moments when Mikey seems to sleep and sparking astonishing liftoff from Simon Rex. Yes, that’s the Simon Rex — former MTV VJ, Scary Movie actor and rapper known as Dirt Nasty — who could easily lay claim to 2021’s Performance of the Year based purely on lowered expectations from his previous work, let alone the inimitable charm he brings to Mikey And Mikey is charming, even when he gets in predicaments that have an ulcerative effect on your stomach; Mikey possesses frighteningly specific knowledge of when someone can and cannot call the authorities on him should he stand on public land and, later in the movie, one incident causes injurious repercussions for people he’s never even met (and a friend who has misplaced his trust in Mikey’s exuberance).
Mike’s Sven-golly charms work on Strawberry. They work on his weed customers. Albeit with a little more flop-sweat effort, they work on people who claim to hate him. They work on you. Of course, this being art, you will realize (as Mikey does during a roller-coaster ride with Strawberry), that our nation has indulged its own form of controlled fear in a way that we have let get way the fuck out of hand. You need not look that close to see where all of Mikey’s reckless ideation results in real-world consequences for the rest of us, but Baker and Bergoch include that, too … alongside an extremely funny scene of Mikey’s hog hanging low while the flag flies high. The motto for this sadly, but searingly, specific American saga could be: Cloudy eyes, full of shit, can’t win.