Post reshared from: https://mashable.com, Who would have thought 2021 would see Simon Rex compared to the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Smith, and Andrew Garfield? Yet as award season heats up, the MTV VJ turned leading man has critics drop-jawed over his Red Rocket. The dark comedy from Sean Baker follows a swaggering over-the-hill porn star on a humbling quest of re-invention in his hometown. In some respects, it’s exactly the kind of narrative we’ve come to expect from Baker, centering on an impoverished sex worker’s struggle to find happiness against the squalid backdrop of an uncaring American society. Yet, Rex’s casting and a bubbly nostalgia give this narrative a glossy exterior, providing a brilliant bait and switch. In the early 2000s, a young, dumb, and hung Texan named Mikey Davies (Rex) set out to Los Angeles with his girlfriend and a dream of becoming a porn star. Now, he’s broke, battered, and begging at the door of his estranged wife Lexi (a razor-sharp Bree Elrod) for a couch to crash on. Rex has the energy of a Golden Retriever, enthusiastic and energetic, with a big dopey smile on his face. How could she possibly resist him? She can’t. No one can. Not the woman he scorned, the weed kingpin he cajoles for work, the starstruck neighbor who plays chauffeur for him, or the 17-year-old Donut Hole clerk, who cheerfully introduces herself as “Strawberry.” Mikey shows up with empty pockets, the shirt on his back, and a black eye. Yet, he wields his charm to cut down others’ defenses, securing shelter, hand-me-down clothes, free donuts, stacks of cash, and a new opportunity for renewed stardom.
Suzanna Son shines in ‘Red Rocket.’
Like other captivating Baker characters, Mikey is a hustler. He’ll work whatever angle he can, but he’s not playing the same game as his predecessors. The sex workers in Starlet, The Florida Project, and Tangerine are women, who are pushed into this field by poverty, desperation, or a pimping boyfriend (recurringly played by James Ransone). One is a single mother, who takes the work that she can get to care for her young daughter, but knows this illegal activity could mean her kid will be taken away from her. Two are transgender women of color, who face violence, racism, and transphobia on the streets. Mikey’s got the bruises to show he’s met with violence, and he struggles to find a job because his entire resume can be found on Pornhub. So, at first, he seems in line with Baker’s underdogs. However, as Red Rocket strides deeper into Mikey’s character study, we learn he’s a horn dog who will bite the hand that feeds him, and do much worse.
Rex’s casting and a bubbly nostalgia give this narrative a glossy exterior, providing a brilliant bait and switch.
Baker’s films bring a much-needed empathy to the discussion of sex workers, who have long been condemned by a society that uses and abuses them with grim indifference. Through Mikey’s story, Baker explores the privileges that white straight men enjoy in the porn industry, providing a creeping contrast to those more marginalized. When Mikey speaks of his own troubles, he does so with absolute animation and compelling conviction. When the troubles of other sex workers are the topic, he is outright dismissive if not cruel. For instance, in one scene, Mikey talks to a friend about a young woman, who he hopes to groom into porn’s next It Girl. “She 17, legal as an eagle,” he crows in excitement. Nonchalantly, his friend points to a stretch of land and says, “See those. Those are the Texas Killing Fields, brother.” This notorious landmark is where 30 corpses, many of them women and young girls, have been abandoned by killers unknown. Mikey shrugs, mirroring the apathy of too much of American society when the corpse of a woman who has ever engaged in sex work is unearthed. In general, when such apathy masquerades as righteousness it is chilling, but Mikey’s disinterest butted up against his eagerness to exploit a young woman is especially harrowing. A sickening shift occurs before our very eyes. His Golden Retriever energy turns feral. His self-aggrandizing anecdotes turn rancid to the point where a sneering drug dealer (a solidly steely Brittney Rodriguez) demands he stop. In the background, news clips from the 2016 presidential election play, featuring Trump’s booming voice full of promises. More than establishing the film’s setting, Baker is subtly setting up a comparison between con men, who can charm and wheedle and promise they are looking out for you but cannot be trusted.
At first, I was thrown off by Rex’s casting. Baker tends to center his movies on lesser-known or unknown actors, which allows the reality of the characters’ circumstances to feel all the more authentic. But like Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, this seemingly dissonant choice is a stroke of genius. Here, Rex himself is a lure. Part of it is his easy charm as a practiced TV host, but part of it is audience familiarity with his face. Perhaps like a porn star, you wouldn’t immediately place him if you ran into him at a gas station. But that face lingers in your memory, and it bolsters our immediate reaction to Mikey. My context of Rex’s MTV persona made Mikey’s pitiful circumstances initially seem truly unfortunate, not suspect. His big smile won me over as it did decades before. Then, an image from Rex’s actual past reminds us starkly how time has passed. Though he is still undeniably fit and handsome, he has aged out of being the young heartthrob. This awareness brings more immediate stakes to Mikey’s desperate quest for one more big swing. No matter how fast he pedals on a borrowed bike, none of us can outrun age. But man, Mikey does try.
In some ways, Red Rocket is Sean Baker’s most mainstream movie yet.
Echoing Mikey’s nostalgia for the early 2000s is an unexpected but upbeat anthem that follows him through moments high and low: *NSYNC’s monster hit “Bye Bye Bye.” First played as he rumbles into town with a black eye on a bus, it seems a mocking declaration that something great has gone by (by by). Later, Strawberry (a glowing Suzanna Son) sings a cover to him as a soft and sweet ballad, reflecting Mikey’s heady hopes of renewed stardom. Later, the OG version will be hilariously on-point lyrically, as he flees an astoundingly bad situation. Finally, it’ll play over the final shot, in reverse, suggesting — what? Perhaps a frantic hope to rewind and try again? Or the uneasy assurance that his farewells have finally come to an end?In some ways, Red Rocket is Sean Baker’s most mainstream movie yet. Rather than casting recognizable stars in bolstering supporting roles, he centers on an established hunk, who carries plenty of lusty ’00s nostalgia on brawny, tan shoulders. Baker weaves a catchy pop song throughout, that lifts the mood even in moments of jolting drama. And — most powerfully — he employs Rex’s charm and Mikey’s hustler can-do to win us over early. Yet, this isn’t a sellout, as it’s a keen satire of a specific and toxic brand of American machismo. Make no mistake, Red Rocket is a wildly, unapologetically funny movie, but not one that mocks the marginalized. In the three-ring circus of his own making, Mikey is showman and clown. And Rex nails this dizzying bombast in a string of rambling monologues. But where he becomes a contender in the year-end race for Best Actor, is when he bears his teeth, not in a goofy grin but in a grimace. Together, Simon Rex and Sean Baker masterfully pull off the mask of a monster who is masquerading as a man. And the result is a movie that is outrageously fun, savagely smart, brightly satirical, and ultimately haunting. Red Rocket opens in theaters on Dec. 10. Source: Read More