Over a handful of celebrated indie movies in the past decade, director Sean Baker has established himself as one of the most reliable chroniclers of small-time American hustlers. A New Jersey native, he's known for the films “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project,” the former a story about transgender sex workers creatively shot on iPhone 5s, and the latter involving "the hidden homeless" living in hotels, which earned Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
It’s easy to see why so many critics like Baker’s movies: He treats marginalized characters, particularly sex workers and the homeless, without any condescension; and his films seem like descendants of the gritty ‘70s realism of actor-friendly directors such as John Cassavetes. His new movie, “Red Rocket,” is very much a part of this street-level obsession with a decaying America marked by con artists, spasms of stupid violence, and little to no upward mobility for its working class.
His latest is carried by a memorable, propulsive performance from Simon Rex, a former MTV VJ who plays ex-porn star, Mikey Saber, a fast-talking con man who disarms those he wants to manipulate with his friendly, cocksure demeanor. This energetic bundle of bulging neck veins has more than a little problem when it comes to repeating the same mistakes. He returns to his Texas City hometown on the Gulf Coast, flat broke, desperate for work and covered in bruises (we're never sure why).
Pedaling around town on a cheap bike, Mikey tells prospective employers, or anyone he’s trying to impress or scam, to “Google me." He's proud of his adult film history, even if gainful employment seems tougher for him than it is for an ex-convict. The loose story bounces along as a bad luck comedy, propelled by Mikey's manic manipulations as he charms his way back into the home of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her chain-smoking, seen-it-all mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). Using minimal dialogue, the actors' physicality, and close-up facial expressions, Baker and writer Chris Bergoch convey an ocean of bad memories from their marooned marriage, without ever really explaining what went wrong.
But we only have to watch Mikey to understand why. With his obsessive need for escalating reward, a textbook definition of addiction, he has few other interests besides sex, money, and maybe a return to online-fame. Rex plays him with a winning mix of comedic chops, kinetic energy and an almost feral intensity, like a hamster on a wheel trying to outrun his own appetites. Mikey does jump off briefly into the arms of a young Donut Hole employee named Strawberry (a memorable Suzanna Son), but immediately begins to groom her as a potential meal ticket back to porn profitability in Los Angeles – under the guise of a whirlwind romance.
Maybe it’s the nonprofessional actors, but the characters feel recognizable, even if a few are rough-hewn. A couple times, “Red Rocket” reminded me of a more realistic if drearier “Boogie Nights,” divorced from any utopian ‘70s sense of community. I was impressed by the light touch of cinematographer Drew Daniels (“Krisha”), using grainy Super 16mm and anamorphic lenses. The wide depth and sharp focus lends character to each small-town setting from sun-dappled strip malls and daytime adult clubs, to spewing black smokestacks or magic hour light bathing a Ferris wheel.
The director rescues a slightly dragging third act with a hectic, funny climax that restores some sense of moral order to the movie's universe, which had begun to feel out of whack at the first sight of a looming Trump campaign sign. The movie is set in 2016, right before the Donald was elected. Clearly we're meant to connect Mikey's flagrant selfishness to his nascent presidency; just as a normalized extremism begins to show its strong roots in America. The script underscores a common flaw of self-deluded egomaniacs: Mikey lacks any empathy for others (especially the women in his life) while blaming others for all his problems. A man-child, Mikey rolls his joints with American flag-printed papers; he easily could've been a Southern politician instead of a suitcase pimp.
There's no shortage of anti-heroes in film, television, or real life. Baker's "Red Rocket" offers a playful examination of the contradictions in our American cultural habit of rooting for the bad guy. The audience may feel torn between disliking Mikey for his sleazy narcissism and respecting his resiliency to dream big. But even while being chased out of a bedroom window or running down the street, fully naked, toward his next major life mistake, you get the feeling Mikey likes it.