There are a lot of problems with “Red Rocket,” director Sean Baker‘s follow-up to his 2017 film “The Florida Project.” It’s incredibly one-note and monotonous, and it sometimes feels like mumblecore gone wrong. Before drowning under its many flaws, the film is rescued with enough humor, a great premise, and an unforgettable lead performance from Simon Rex.
Adult film star Mikey Saber (Rex) is a washed-up adult film star. After an extended flood of bad luck, he returns to his hometown in Texas and moves in with his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Close quarters and constant arguments don’t make things easier, and Mikey decides to start dealing marijuana because he can’t find a job. When he visits the local donut shop, Mikey meets a teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and becomes obsessed. He begins going to see Strawberry at work, eventually starting a relationship with her. But Mikey has ulterior motives: he wants to turn the young girl into a porn star in an ingenious bid to make his own way back into the industry.
Baker is connoisseur of realism who is adept at making films that capture an honest slice of Americana and an established sense of place. The rundown Texas town has just as much personality as the cast of colorful characters, a group of people (sort of trying) to do their best while living out a pointless routine in a dying locale . By casting mostly non-actors, Baker achieves a realism that plays more like a documentary than a work of fiction. Because of this, he gets some moments of absolute social brilliance from his universally relatable, observational humor. One of the best scenes in the film is one where Mikey takes Lil and Lexi to the donut shop and lets them order “anything they want” in order to prove that he has money. It’s hilarious because it’s so accurate.
A major problem with Mikey is that he’s a charismatic but unlikeable, conceited man. He doesn’t really find redemption (there’s nothing redeeming about a grown man grooming a young girl to become an adult film actress anyway), and his actions throughout the story are either creepy, disturbing, or irritating (sometimes all three at once). This is a big reason why I appreciate and respect Rex’s performance: he makes a rotten man funny and interesting enough to want to watch, and he makes it look easy.
The rest of the characters are neither strong enough nor well developed enough to withstand the thin script (written by xxx and xxx). The story outstays the shelf life of the characters, and the film eventually succumbs from the lack of plot. The first half of the film is very funny, and the realistic, rough-around-the-edges inhabitants of the story are charming. But Baker puts too much of little consequence in this film, making its two hour runtime feel overly long for the material.
There are a lot of raunchy situations and graphic dialogue, both of which I’d argue are necessary for a project like this. Baker sets the film in 2016, with hints of the Clinton vs. Trump election peppered throughout the background. It’s a statement on a lot of things, and keeping the story in that time period may seem like an insignificant choice when it actually speaks volumes.
Rex is the main reason to see this film, and his performance deserves every bit of the praise and recognition it is receiving, but I wish there was more to the entire project. When “Red Rocket” works, it’s terrific. When it misses a beat, it flounders.