'Red Rocket' review: Simon Rex achieves lift off in Sean Baker's hilarious character study
Courtesy of A24
One year ago, if you had told me Simon Rex, the former MTV VJ/rapper/actor who imitated Eminem in “Scary Movie 3” would give 2021’s best performance in Sean Baker’s near perfect “Red Rocket,” it’s an understatement to say I would have questioned the thought process but the universe works in mysterious ways. Rex is a knockout playing washed-up porn star Mikey Saber under the guerrilla, low-budget style of Baker who shot “Red Rocket” in Summer 2020 without permits or talent agency permissions. Most of the performers, aside from Rex, had zero acting experience adding to the authenticity of Mikey’s po-dunk, blue collar Texas town where he returns after his career in LA fizzles out.
Strategically set in Summer 2016 as Donald Trump was ascending towards the presidency with NSYNC'S 2000 anthem “Bye Bye Bye” blaring over the opening credits, there’s no strings attached on Mikey who we quickly learn is a leech or, as the title is slang for a dog’s erection, a puppy with his tale between the legs. Mikey’s biggest franchise: “The Fast and Furry Ass” doesn’t exist anymore because of Paul Walker’s untimely death: “That was the worst thing he could have done” he complains. Now back (mostly stuck) in his hometown of Texas City, Texas with a variety of cuts and bruises on his face (after you watch the movie, you can probably make an educated guess why that is), Mikey catches abandoned wife and former co-star Lexi (Bree Elrod) off guard by showing up on her doorstep asking for a place to crash. “It’ll only be a couple days!” he begs and pleads. Rex, so convincing and charming, sells his case and wears down Lexi’s defenses until she agrees. Score 1 for Mikey.
After failing to land a job because the local scene is afraid of his career baggage, Mikey starts selling weed and resuming physical intimacy with Lexi while telling anyone who will listen about his illustrious golden days in Hollywood where he plans to return as soon as he’s got enough cash saved up. But then he meets and falls in love with Strawberry (a mesmerizing Suzanna Son), a young woman employed at the nearby doughnut store whom Mikey is convinced is his ticket back into the industry. It’s clear Mikey’s a sleazeball as he tries grooming Strawberry, who is a few weeks removed from being 18, for the big leagues. Baker always thrives at writing anti-heroes you probably couldn’t stand in real life but find yourself slightly rooting for on screen. It’s also no coincidence “The Florida Project” director set his film during the Trump reign because Mikey obviously fancies himself a “self-made” man.
Instead, Mikey’s a predatorial hustler looking out for his best interests and will throw anyone under the bus and Rex brings a rare jolt of mile-a-minute energy usually reserved for a David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin joint. “Red Rocket” might be a low-fi project for Baker, but for Rex it’s larger than life, an affirmation of everything that’s preceded the 47-year-old who was never given a chance to showcase his dramatic chops. It’s not easy finding the balance between annoying and sympathetic, but Rex hit the sweet spot. He’s a star-is-born all over again and here’s hoping it opens the floodgates for future projects. Houston, we’ve achieved lift off.
RED ROCKET opens in theaters Christmas Day.