What does life look like after achieving the American Dream? What happens when one has had everything they’ve ever wanted taken away? How does one come back from rock bottom, learning almost nothing in the process? These questions and more linger around the edges of the indie comedy, Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project, and Greg the Bunny among his many high-profile film and TV credits), but the reason this will end up ranking among the best films of 2021 is because of the figurative and literal answer that always comes to the mind of our alleged protagonist: “Fuck it.”
Simon Rex, well past his days as an MTV VJ, stars as Mikey Saber, a destitute porn star who, at the end of his rope, returns to his tiny hometown near Galveston, TX. After 15 years working steadily in the adult industry – including several awards from Adult Video News (the AVN Awards are essentially the Porn Oscars) – he has now lost everything, returning to his rural roots all but crawling in hopes of getting back on his feet. With the confidence and swagger of a man in much better circumstances, he surprises his estranged wife and former co-star, Lexi (Bree Elrod) at her mother Lil’s house (Brenda Deiss).
After begging and pleading for an indeterminate amount of time, he is allowed to crash on the couch, provided he get a job and pay rent, as well as handle household duties. This proves difficult, as no one will hire an ex-porn star in rural Texas, so he returns to his old hustle of selling marijuana on the streets, courtesy of his old supplier, Leondria (Judy Hill) and her take-no-bullshit daughter, June (Brittany Rodriguez). Within days, things are starting to look up.
At first the film seems like a fractured fairy tale about the American ideal of anyone being able to make it if they apply themselves enough, sort of like Hillbilly Elegy, except not insulting or self-serving. A man who was on top of the world (and several women; sorry, couldn’t resist) is humbled back to square one, but finds a way through sheer determination to make it back to the peak, albeit in an amusing and horny way. I was honestly worried this was going to play out like a redneck version of the back half of Boogie Nights, only without the insanely creepy Alfred Molina coke house scene.
Instead, the second act drives the movie straight into Greek tragedy with the introductions of Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) and Strawberry (Suzanna Son). The former is Lexi’s neighbor, who she used to babysit when they were younger, and when Mikey and Lexi were still shagging like minks before they both left for Hollywood. He represents the dead-end life Mikey doesn’t want to end up in by staying in Texas City. The latter is a 17-year-old cashier at the local donut shop (yes, there are posters of hot dogs in donuts on the walls, in case you thought we were going for anything remotely highbrow), and the ultimate example of what Mikey wants to regain.
It is at this point that Mikey goes from goofy hero to tragic fool, a la Oedipus or Icarus, his unstoppable hubris acting as his worst enemy. He takes advantage of Lonnie’s pride in knowing a minor celebrity to get basically anything he wants, all the while assuring the poor yokel that he has a master plan that’s coming to fruition. He takes risks with his involvement with Strawberry, as the donut shop is a regular hangout for oil workers ready and willing to buy weed from him, but Leondria has expressly forbidden Mikey to sell to them, as any of them getting caught would bring down too much heat on her. And of course, just as his life is starting to improve through semi-honest means and he’s beginning to reconcile with Lexi (they are still technically married), Strawberry is the sweetest temptation, a barely legal (by Texas standards, I guess) sex goddess that he can not only possess, but mold into the next big adult starlet to get his ideal life back.
It’s the classic example of pride leading to destruction, and it’s played nearly perfectly. Rex’s very animated facial expressions (at times he looks like a warmed-over Tom Hardy, other times like Seann William Scott at his slapstick-y best) sell the irony terrifically, as he thinks he’s oh so slick, pulling several over on Lexi and Lil, all the while showing us in the audience just what a fraud he is (illustrated brilliantly by the fact that for the first act he has to take Viagra to have any enjoyment in his life). In one of the more inspired creative choices of the film, the entire affair takes place in the summer of 2016, with the political conventions playing on the background televisions throughout, Donald Trump’s messianic proclamations serving as the thematic Greek Chorus to Mikey’s underhanded braggadocio.
The devil-may-care attitude with which Mikey runs roughshod over people’s lives is softened somewhat by his eventual comeuppance, but also by the fact that there really are no sympathetic characters. This is another parallel to the political backdrop, as there was something of a national attitude that the people Trump’s policies fucked over the most should have known what they were getting themselves into when they voted for such an obvious charlatan. Whether you agree with that sentiment is another matter entirely, but it certainly existed, and the supporting cast reflects it. Lonnie goes to malls pretending to be a veteran to panhandle, and has been arrested for “stolen valor” before. Both Lexi and Lil smoke crack and don’t work. Leondria and her family are all drug dealers and gang enforcers. Even Strawberry, initially attractive to Mikey because of what he perceives as her girl next door innocence, turns out to be quite the exhibitionist, getting off on the thrill of public sex (I won’t lie, I… felt things; I’ll just leave it at that). These aspects don’t necessarily make these people bad, but it makes them imperfect enough to keep the shenanigans mostly in the realm of comedy, leaving the true dramatic downfall for Mikey alone.
This isn’t a perfect film. It’s really hard to suss out Leondria and June’s character motivations at times. The script is full of cursing followed by apologies for said cursing, like it’s supposed to be a running joke, but it doesn’t really land. Suzanna Son gives a great performance, but her role is largely limited to the objectified sex kitten role, and I’d have liked to see more development on her as a person rather than just through how she can serve Mikey’s selfish interests. Also, just like I docked Promising Young Woman for its unforgivable use of a Paris Hilton pop track, this movie tries way too hard to get mileage out of “Bye Bye Bye,” which, just, no (though I will give credit for Son’s brief cover version). If you want to try to make a single song feel important in a movie like this, you have to go much deeper and harder than that (okay, I’m not sorry for that one).
But setting that aside, this is a tremendously ambitious and layered film. And while there is a lot of sex (presented within the plot almost like the cheesy storyline in a porno at times, which works as a meta gag), it never feels gratuitous. Simon Rex gives by far the best performance of his career, and Suzanna Son may become a breakout star from this. It’s funny, poignant, and sneakily literary in its execution. If this is what Sean Baker is truly capable of, wringing laughs and some genuine suspense out of a porn star running naked down country roads, then, to quote Bill Hader from his Saturday Night Live days, “Mark me down as scared AND horny!”
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most sexually explicit mainstream film you’ve seen? If you were offered the chance to do porn, would you consider it? Let me know!