Synopsis: Finding himself down and out in Los Angeles, ex porn star Mikey Saber decides to crawl back to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his estranged wife and mother-in-law are living.
Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Brittany Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone, Marlon Lambert
Director: Sean Baker
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Of all the former MTV VJs that would be thought of to get a big comeback story, I never would have considered Simon Rex would be the name that would be on the top of the list for many. I mean, I’m someone that would be interested in seeing a late career revamp for the likes of Daisy Fuentes, Karen Duffy, Mark Goodman, Ananda Lewis, or my personal favorite…Julie Brown (not the Downtown one). Yet here we are, talking once again about Rex almost 25 years after his stint on MTV came to an end and a number of years after his short stint in feature films fizzled out. Though Rex was never a top tier talent, he skated by largely on his good looks and that extreme likability factor which made him such a prime choice for the music video channel that even then was sparking onto profiting off of the engagement to specific demographics.
Of course, what many people instantly think of (at least from the generation that were teenagers/young adults around 1996/1997 and paid attention) when they hear the name Simon Rex is the infamy he achieved when it was discovered that before he landed the MTV gig he had a brief fling in the adult film industry. Appearing in a handful of solo videos, Rex was one of the first “celebrity” adult videos that could be found on the new World Wide Web and believe me, it didn’t matter what your orientation was, at some point you encountered it. (Don’t deny it!) Miraculously, it didn’t derail his career like it certainly would have years earlier. Oddly, Rex perhaps got a bit of a boost from it, albeit briefly, and if it had happened ten years later he might have been able to pivot it into some kind of business deal if he had wanted to. Instead, he’s largely been showing up in low-budget junk films (Halloweed, anyone?) and, shudder, performing as the rapper Dirt Nasty with the rap group he formed, Dyslexic Speedreaders.
Thank goodness for Sean Baker, the ultra-indie writer/director of 2015’s breakthrough, filmed on an iPhone, Tangerine and 2017’s Oscar-lauded The Florida Project. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch thought of Rex when drafting Red Rocket, their new film about a washed-up porn star that high tails it out of Los Angeles and heads home to a small town in Texas. It’s not based on Rex’s life (this isn’t a Magic Mike-ish story like Channing Tatum), but it feels tailor-made to one Rex could have easily had if he hadn’t found his way to sets that didn’t require him to take his clothes off. Typical of Baker is a gleaming essence of small-town life, the feeling of an endless parade of days with the same schedule and no plans for anything but more of the same. Pair that unflinching honesty with Rex’s central performance as one of the unlikeliest leading men in all of 2021 and Red Rocket becomes a fascinating, if not entirely endorse-able watch.
Mikey Saber (Rex) hops off the bus from Los Angeles with a bruised face, body, and ego. Charming his way back into the tiny home of his mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) and a wife (Bree Elrod) he’s been separated from for years, he convinces them to let him crash on the couch while he finds work and helps with their rent. Unable to find a job in the dying town (Texas City, TX) due to his adult entertainment past, he turns to the local pot dealer (Judy Hill) and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez) to sell for them on the side. His ability to market ice to a penguin makes him a perfect candidate to move their product and it’s not long before he’s bringing in decent money through sales to strippers in neighboring towns and construction workers that frequent the donut shop he hangs out at.
Also at the donut shop is seventeen year old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a beautiful redhead that catches Mikey’s eye. While the two grow closer and his estrangement with his chain-smoking wife disintegrates further, he strikes up a friendship with the oddball next door who has an weird habit of being arrested for stolen valor (look it up) and being heavily influenced by peer pressure. Convinced Strawberry could be the next big thing in the business and sensing an opportunity to start life again and revitalize his career, Mikey makes plans to once again leave Texas behind…but the town that initially didn’t want him may not let him leave quite so easily.
What I continue to admire about Baker’s work is that it’s in your face cinema without feeling like it’s shoving things down your throat. Sure, Red Rocket is tremendously raunchy and contains numerous sex scenes featuring Rex and either Elrod and Son humping like jack rabbits and leaving little to the imagination but so much work has been done leading up to these scenes to instill a sense of realism to these people that they come across like humans and not just tools being moved around for the pleasure of the audience. It’s not “sexy” but it’s not NOT sexy. Does that make sense? To that end, if you’ve yet to see Rex’s famous appendage, you’ll get your chance several times during the 130-minute film, which is long and could be trimmed slightly (the movie, I mean.)
Where Red Rocket tended to lose me was the nearly 50-year-old Mikey seducing 17-year-old Strawberry and, let’s just say it, grooming her for a life in the adult industry in a way that felt manipulative and sleazy. Yes, I know that’s part of the intent in Baker and Bergoch’s screenplay, but the lines aren’t as clearly drawn as they could have been to truly make Mikey culpable for whatever damage is incurred to those around him. There’s another incident (that I won’t spoil) which occurs in relation to Mikey and it’s a fairly horrific event offscreen and we are asked to piece it together through newsclips and offhand conversations. Why alienate us further to a character already on the edge with us? It’s like Baker is daring us to judge someone more and more without giving him the ‘ole heave-ho…but at some point, you have to kick him to the curb.
It’s easier not to kick Mikey when he’s down (or even when he’s up) because Rex manages to keep us on Mikey’s side longer than we might have otherwise if someone else had taken the role. Sure, you can spot the con he’s spouting and the line he’s selling, most of those he comes in contact with can, but they let him get away with it because ultimately, he is only doing damage to himself. It’s when the damage spills over to others when battle lines are drawn and the film strays into darker territories. The small-town flavor of some of the other cast results in decidedly uneven performances but it makes not a lick of difference. Line deliveries are beyond questionable from some (one sounds like they are being fed their lines from off camera) but it only adds to their overall charm.
By and large, Red Rocket is an enjoyable endeavor and a real showcase for Rex to stage a comeback in a unique way. There’s a central joke to the movie and also to Rex which shows that both have a sense of humor and that’s just the beginning of the way in which Baker works with changing our perception of Rex as a one-dimension personality into considering him as a serious actor. It works more often than not and while I still didn’t care for much of the action in the final 1/3 of the film, that first seventy minutes or so is rip-roaringly good.