When we last checked in with writer-director Sean Baker, he gave us a magnificent film called “The Florida Project.” This picture showed us the life of those just barely making ends meet – specifically, single-parent families who live in a roadside motel near the mammoth Disney World resort. This eye-opener was delivered through the mischievous exploits of a six-year-old girl and her two friends during one long hot Florida summer. “The Florida Project” was smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining. It was my No. 1 film for 2017.
Nown Baker has given us “Red Rocket,” another tale of the marginalized and downtrodden, this time in coastal Texas, alongside the oil refineries that dot the landscape near Galveston. But that’s where the similarities end. “Red Rocket” is neither uplifting nor entertaining. It features not one sympathetic character, and probably should never have been submitted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Having said that, actor-comedian Simon Rex is outstanding as the pathetic, fast-talking con man Mikey Saber. He shows up unannounced at his ex-wife’s small run-down ranch house, and practically begs her to let him crash at her place for a couple nights. As you might expect, a few days turns into what feels like an eternity, as Saber’s diarrhea of the mouth takes him from one bad situation to another.
We learn Saber enjoyed a successful career as an adult film actor in Hollywood, but for reasons to which we are never privy, had to leave that life behind and return to his hometown. To make ends meet – or “help pay the rent” as Saber spins it – he almost immediately returns to his old marijuana supplier and purchases enough of her product to earn a little income from the refinery workers.
He also befriends a high school girl who works at the local donut shop. Strawberry (not her real name) turns out to be a slut whose future is about as promising as that of Saber. Saber also hooks up with Lonnie, the young man who lives next door – a boy Saber used to babysit before he left for California. Much as with every other character in “Red Rocket,” Lonnie has no future, and no marketable skills to acquire one.
Acting newcomers Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss play Saber’s ex-wife and her mother. And Deiss’ acting is so bad I don’t expect to see her again. Other unknowns populate the rest of the cast, but not in a positive way.
Last year, Chloe Zhao used real nomads and drifters (along with Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) in her Oscar-winning “Nomadland.” In this case, she used actual people to play themselves – to great effect. Their nuanced performances gave “Nomadland” an authentic feel that professionals may not have been as able to convey as effortlessly. In “Red Rocket,” Baker uses people who (apparently) want to be actors, but simply aren’t very good.
After two hours watching undesirable characters (which really drags during the middle of the film), I wondered what the impetus was for making “Red Rocket.” What message are Baker and frequent co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch trying to convey?
I like Simon Rex. I think he has a future in motion pictures. But I want to see him in something else. While mildly entertaining, Mikey Saber is a narcissistic loser who is always just one step ahead of being found out. He’s the type who tells so many lies, he can’t remember which of his acquaintances knows what about him. He can’t keep it all straight. We can keep it straight up to a point, but eventually we stop caring. If Baker and Bergoch can’t give us at least one affectionate character, why should we invest in their product?