It’s icky, it’s uncomfortable, but “Red Rocket” is also daring and funny, resulting in co-writer and director Sean Baker’s best outing as a filmmaker yet. If audiences and award voters can get past the more risqué elements, the A24 feature could have a fighting chance in a still wide-open awards season.
The film’s success begins and ends with actor Simon Rex, who dives headfirst into a career-defining performance. Rex’s story is well known in media, as he got his start appearing in solo scenes in porno movies before becoming a model and MTV DJ. After dipping into TV with stints in “Felicity” and as a scene-stealing white rapper in “Scary Movie 3,” he’s mostly flown under-the-radar in Hollywood. That seems like it’s all about to change.
You can see similarities to the career resurgence of Mickey Rourke when he blazed back onto the scene with “The Wrestler” and landed a best actor nomination in 2008. Of course, the Academy and the industry love a good comeback story. Still, based on conversations with voters in the past, it seems as if someone has to give them permission to do something as cool and daring as nominating a film like “Red Rocket.” On an interesting note, its sensibilities have the potential to capture the social media zeitgeist similar to what we saw with “Promising Young Woman” last year , though clearly with a completely different story and theme. The discussions surrounding “Promising Young Woman” kept it in the awards conversation and led to it winning the original screenplay Oscar for Emerald Fennell.
Rex embodies “Red Rocket’s” protagonist Mikey Saber through and through, and he’s a character that you simultaneously love and hate. His hilarious one-liners and frantic sparring with Bree Elrod, another awards-worthy candidate, for supporting actress, is impeccably orchestrated. However, the elephant in the Oscar room is the audience is witnessing the character, in essence, groom a young girl. As society becomes more sensitive to the mistreatment and abuse of women, this aspect could leave many cold and unable to connect.
It’s also the type of performance the Golden Globes voters would have fallen over themselves to nominate and even reward. With the HFPA out of the awards calendar this season, Rex’s campaign will rely on the critics’ prizes (NYFCC winner possibility?) and/or a concentrated blitz with SAG voters and the actor’s branch.
Another obstacle will be Oscar voters’ aversion to male nudity. While former nominees such as Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”) have nabbed attention, actors with nude scenes are often passed over, even when their films are in the awards race (i.e., Harvey Keitel in “The Piano”). Rex’s background as a former adult film actor is sure to be a topic of conversation and could keep the more conservative base of the Academy at a distance. Looking through the history of best actor, it’s hard to find a former nominee that resembles Rex and his character – which could be both a blessing and a curse.
Baker’s previous films, “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” have been popular with critics, performing well with critics and awards groups like the Independent Spirit Awards. Only the latter movie received Oscar attention, with Willem Dafoe nominated for his third supporting actor Oscar. The writing branch of the Academy has been one of the more open entities to challenging material and genres. Many feel that Baker, along with his co-writer Chris Bergoch, is overdue for Academy love. With Baker, who also serves as editor, his best chances at awards attention could be in original screenplay, a category that has seen comedies recognized in previous seasons.
“Red Rocket” has the goods. We just need the Academy to be cool enough (and open) to recognize that. Telluride is an interesting test.