If there is one subject that has fascinated American filmmaker Sean Baker, it is the lives of sex workers.
From his 2012 film ‘Starlet’ to his acclaimed follow-ups ‘Tangerine’ and ‘The Florida Project’, Baker has humanised sex workers of all walks of life, revealing depths and complexities rarely afforded to these characters previously. Once again, Baker returns with another fantastic portrait of a sex worker in his hilarious and masterful romp ‘Red Rocket’.
‘Red Rocket’ focuses on porn star Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex, most likely familiar to audiences for his role as Anna Faris’ love interest in ‘Scary Movie 3’. Battered and bruised, he returns from Los Angeles to the smoky skyline and faded-pastel buildings of his hometown of Texas City (gorgeously rendered on the screen) for convoluted reasons, seeking shelter with his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Despite Lexi’s observations that there is likely more to Mikey’s reasons for his return, his charisma wins over the household and other residents in the town. However, as more time is spent with Mikey, other qualities emerge; he’s boastful (“I would’ve 100% out-cardioed that guy,” he whines after a beating), selfish, and a gaslighter. The most shocking quality comes when he meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), and begins grooming her for a career in pornography, and hopefully as his ticket back into the industry. And yet, despite his toxicity, it’s hard not to be swindled by Mikey’s Golden Retriever energy and charm. Rex’s subtle masking of manipulation under likability delivers a complex and winning performance, revealing an acting gift that has been slumming in films like ‘Superhero Movie’.
Mikey Saber is a character who would fit seamlessly into the man-child comedies that emerged in the 2000s, especially ones associated with Judd Apatow. Whereas those films seemingly celebrate the shocking acts of their characters, Baker’s film finds laughs in Mikey’s failures, the biggest coming when his cocksure confidence is completely undone and leaves him dumbfounded, or in one case running naked through the streets to ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ by N*Sync. As each of Mikey’s schemes result in failures and successes, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s script maintains tension to the very end, finding unpredictable turns and leaving audiences guessing whether Mikey will ultimately triumph or come undone.
‘Red Rocket’ is a hilarious and compelling portrait of a lecherous huckster driven by an incredible performance. Hopefully others will have as good an eye for casting as Baker leads to cinema-goers seeing more of Simon Rex.