In showbiz, they have awards for everything — Oscars, Golden Globes and, of course, the Palme d’Or. Adult film actor Mikey Davies, aka “Mikey Saber,” has five AVN Awards, and he creates opportunities to humble-brag about them constantly now that he’s back in Texas City, the tiny Gulf Coast town he and girlfriend Lexi left together shortly after high school. They got married, moved to Los Angeles and made a decent living shooting porn together for a time. But that was roughly 20 years ago, and now, Mikey has fallen on hard times. Or limp times, as the case may be.
There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of American indie films about young people escaping a dead end like Texas City and heading east or west, where opportunity lies. Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” (the director’s first film to compete for the top prize at Cannes) is about an unlikely case of just such a runaway returning home and trying to rustle up some fresh opportunity there.
The movie stars Simon Rex, which is itself a stunt-casting coup, considering that Rex has been shadowed all these years by a handful of “solo” videos he shot before MTV tapped the chiseled and charismatic screen personality to veejay for it in the mid-’90s. Back then, an excursion into porn could be a career ender (or at least, a major embarrassment), haunting celebs like Sylvester Stallone and Vanessa Williams … that is, until Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton demonstrated that such exposure could actually boost one’s brand. Here, it’s the cred Rex brings to a part that’s the first genuinely meaty role of the B-lister’s career, and he’s not about to blow it, inhabiting the hyper, always-hustling Saber the way Mickey Rourke did “The Wrestler.” We’ve never seen Rex like this before — and quite a few have probably never seen him at all. Either way, the jolt works to the role’s advantage.
Where other filmmakers still respect more puritanical codes, Baker shows an open interest in how the commodification of desire factors into modern life — specifically, how putting out can pay the bills and shift the power dynamic. “Red Rocket” marks the latest addition in what could reasonably be dubbed the director’s unofficial “sex-worker quadrilogy”: first “Starlet” (about the San Fernando Valley porn scene), then “Tangerine” (an effervescent L.A. trans fable) and “The Florida Project” (wherein a single mom turns tricks from her motel), and now this.
The subject matter may sound salacious, but in each of those projects, Baker revealed his soft core, so to speak: This nonjudgmental humanist genuinely cares about these characters, and while he doesn’t shy away from the illicit reality of their unconventional professions (the way “Pretty Women” did), neither does he gaze upon it with a lecherous eye (à la Ninja Thyberg’s 2020 Cannes selection “Pleasure”). Baker seems to appreciate the way that making movies about porn stars, escorts and the like can scandalize and even electrify an audience. But behind that impulse remains a sincere respect for such characters, elevating marginal or disreputable members of society the way Honoré de Balzac did.
His movies not only grab people’s attention but have something profound and political to say once they’ve got it, and the same is certainly true of “Red Rocket” (the title of which is slang for a dog’s erection). “Suitcase Pimp” might have been more apt, since Mikey has essentially built his adult film career on “managing” the women he’s sleeping with, and the movie observes this fast-talking sleazeball coming home with a loose scheme to find someone who will be his ticket back into the porn industry. Maybe it’ll be Lexi (stage actor Bree Elrod), to whom he’s still married. Or maybe Mikey can find a new ingénue and talk her into following him out to SoCal. That’s the plan anyway.
In a place like Texas City — with a population of less than 50,000, living in the shadow of steaming oil refineries that popped up in the wake of a devastating industrial explosion back in 1947 — it’s not hard to imagine a pretty high school girl desperate to get out. After smooth-talking his way back under Lexi’s roof, Mikey discovers a promising contender easily enough at the Donut Hole (he also finds dozens of roughnecks willing to buy his weed, which seems to be the only way such an unemployable screw-up can earn some fast cash).
Everything in “Red Rocket” happens just a little too easily, which is one of the weaknesses of a self-indulgent regional satire that stretches its perhaps-80-minute plot over more than two hours: Like Baker’s beguiling “Florida Project,” it could have been tighter. But unlike that movie, the characters — including a backyard drug dealer named June (Brittney Rodriguez) and incel-next-door Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), Mikey’s one-man fan club — wear out their welcome rather quickly, while 2016 Trump campaign sound bites and trash-TV clips underscore the “reality” of this demented circus.
The script, Baker’s fourth co-written with Chris Bergoch, can be a little obvious at times, inviting a kind of stilted stag-film performance style (most of the cast are amateurs anyway). Maybe that’s deliberate, but it feels as if the director didn’t entirely trust Rex’s ability to play the subtext. “Red Rocket” calls for someone who can convincingly embody a bad actor, since audiences are meant to pick up on the calculating way Mikey tries to manipulate 17-year-old Raylee (Suzanna Son) into making a video with him.
Like a more demure version of the rebellious Texas duo in Augustine Frizzell’s under-seen “Never Goin’ Back,” Son’s bored and horny local turns out to be super receptive to the slightly pathetic burnout — who shows up at the doughnut shop on a borrowed bike, drenched in flop sweat, and takes her to a strip club on their first date — inviting him to call her “Strawberry” and grabbing his crotch. “Are you trying to get fired?” he asks. “I’m trying to get hired.” Bow chicka wow wow.
From the sidelines, anyone can tell what Mikey’s up to, and it’s far too convenient (and not at all plausible) that Lexi and her justifiably skeptical mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), don’t keep better tabs on their notoriously shady tenant. But then, they’re busy freebasing in the backyard while Mikey’s out earning the rent. All of these characters would be right at home on an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show,” and though the movie builds to an appropriately trashy finale — one that offers “Boogie Nights” a run for its money shot — the climax isn’t nearly outrageous enough. Like Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems” (another alternate title the film could have used), Mikey is a manic small-time scam artist who recklessly flirts with self-destruction. Once upon a time, shooting porn would have been the fastest form of sabotage. But in this fractured fairy tale, it could well be the path to his redemption.