2022's first big-screen must-see charts a washed-up porn star's thorny return to his home town, and features an awards-worthy performance by former MTV VJ Simon Rex.
It might sound crazy, but it ain't no lie: Red Rocket's *NSYNC needle drops, the cost of which likely almost eclipsed the rest of the film's budget, provide a sensational mix of movie music moments in an all-round sensational picture. A portrait of an ex-porn star's knotty homecoming to the oil-and-gas hub that is Texas City, the feature only actually includes one song by the Justin Timberlake-fronted late-90s/early-00s boyband, but it makes the most of it. That tune is 'Bye Bye Bye', and it's a doozy. With its instantly recognisable blend of synth and violins, it first kicks in as the film itself does, and as the bruised face of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex, Scary Movie 3, 4 and 5) peers out of a bus window en route from Los Angeles. Its lyrics — "I'm doing this tonight, you're probably gonna start a fight, I know this can't be right" — couldn't fit the situation better. The infectiously catchy vibe couldn't be more perfect as well, and nor could the contrast that all those upbeat sounds have always had with the track's words.
As he demonstrates with every film, Red Rocket writer/director/editor Sean Baker is one of the best and shrewdest filmmakers working today — one of the most perceptive helmers taking slice-of-life looks at American existence on the margins, too. His latest movie joins Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project on a resume that just keeps impressing, but there's an edge here born of open recognition that Mikey is no one's hero. He's a narcissist, sociopath and self-aggrandiser who knows how to talk his way into anything, claim success from anyone else's wins and blame the world for all his own woes. He's someone that everyone in his orbit can't take no more and wants to see out that door, as if *NSYNC's now-22-year-old lyrics were specifically penned about him. He's also a charismatic charmer who draws people in like a whirlwind. He's the beat and the words of 'Bye Bye Bye' come to life, in fact, even if the song wasn't originally in Red Rocket's script.
Mikey's return after decades away isn't greeted with smiles or cheers; his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod, Shutter Island), also his ex on-screen partner, is horrified when he arrives on her doorstep unannounced with $22 to his name. It takes him mere minutes to convince her and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) to let him crash on their couch, though — and just days to work his way back into Lexi's bed. The begrudging inevitability of their reunion echoes as firmly as Red Rocket's chosen anthem, and both keep repeating throughout the film. Unable to get a job despite his glee when explaining the big gap in his resume ("Google me," he exclaims, revealing his porn past to prospective employers), he's reluctantly given back his old weed-dealing gig by local dealer Leondra (Judy Hill), who clearly isn't thrilled. The two new connections Mikey makes — with a neighbour and a 17-year-old doughnut store cashier — also smack of the same feeling.
Both relationships leave as much of an imprint upon Mikey's life as anything can — although, no matter what he contends about every bad turn he's endured, all the chaos plaguing his every waking moment is his own doing. With Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), he gets an adoring sidekick who thinks he can do no wrong and, most importantly, a driver to taxi him around town. With Strawberry (Suzanna Son, chief among the film's many first-timers), he hopes to turn his lust into a way back into the adult film industry, grooming her to make her own thrusts into porn. Both naive and aware of Mikey's brimming bullshit, Strawberry isn't quite as taken in with his promises as he imagines her to be, however. Still, she might quote "it ain't no lie, bye bye bye" about him, but she's also willing enough to go along for the ride.
Played with spark and ambition by Son, Strawberry also sings 'Bye Bye Bye' herself, delivering a post-coital keyboard rendition — because, in soundtracking uninhibited jaunts into careening lives, Red Rocket, like Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, enlists new versions of decades-old pop hits by former Mouseketeers. The film's stripped-down take speaks volumes about the movie it's in, too, because Baker's feature is as much about the sweet melodies we sing to ourselves about ourselves as it is about the clash between an alluring mood and the stark truth. Mikey has the spin down pat — in porn, he's proudest about winning awards for being pleasured orally, and doesn't waver when it's pointed out that he's not really doing anything by being on the receiving end — but Red Rocket exposes the reality behind his incessant chatter and swagger.
Writing with three-time collaborator Chris Bergoch, Baker peppers the film's screenplay with devastatingly telling lines and comedic inclusions alike. When Mikey insists that "the universe is on my side", it smashes both targets. But even as Baker weaves in broader commentary about the US today — Red Rocket is set in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, with snippets of campaign speeches heard and parallels between two different self-assured grifters easily spied — his smartest move is saying hi, hi, hi to Rex. It's a loaded choice, given the latter's own porn history as a solo player in the early 90s. Rex was then an MTV VJ, so he's also used to talking the glossy talk. Acting followed, plus rapping under the moniker Dirt Nasty, but it's safe to say that his career didn't pan out as planned until Red Rocket drew upon that history to cast him as its magnetic middle-aged dirtbag.
Rex is so awards-worthily commanding — so seductive and sleazy in tandem, all while playing a livewire of a thorny character with so little self-awareness — that it's plain to see why the film was scripted with him in mind. Baker fills other key parts with non-professionals, as he has a history of doing, and there's zero weak links in what proves a riotous character study of an entrancing yet toxic and deluded hustler, and also a freewheeling snapshot of small industrial town lives that's fuelled by authenticity on several levels. It's little wonder, then, that cinematographer Drew Daniels (Waves) lenses the picture like it's caught between magic hour-hued fantasies and scrappy social realism. That's Baker's favourite aesthetic, and straddling juxtapositions is baked into his latest movie everywhere it can be. Perhaps that's why Red Rocket also feels like exactly what Baker was destined to do after the similarly phenomenal The Florida Project, but also firmly its own glorious journey. That ain't no lie, either.
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