Movie Review: The Empty Provocation of 'Red Rocket'
Transgressive sexuality grows boring fast in Sean Baker's Red Rocket.
I find the movie Red Rocket loathsome. It’s not a moral objection to the film as some might assume since the movie centers on the relationship between a former adult film actor and a 17 year old girl, though I do understand why moral objections to this movie exist. No, my issue isn’t that I am some kind of prude or I don’t like to have my values challenged by a work of art. Rather, I just find Red Rocket to be unendingly obnoxious.
From moment one to moment last Red Rocket is annoying in the way that obnoxious people in the real world can be annoying. Simon Rex’s character Mikey is the kind of person I avoid at all costs because he’s loud and obnoxious and I really can’t stand people who seem to inflict themselves upon others. Some see this character as being challenging and transgressive. I see him as the kind of person who makes me leave social situations so I can avoid being thrust into an unwanted conversation with them which will invariably be about themselves.
Red Rocket tells the story of Mikey who is returning to his home in a small, lower class, suburban Texas neighborhood. Mikey has lost everything after his career in the adult film industry came to an end. Now, Mikey is back in Texas where he’s hoping to convince his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) to take him back while simultaneously convincing Lexi’s mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss), to let him stay in their home for an unspecified amount of time.
Lil agrees to let Mikey stay if he will get a job and pay rent. Much to her and her daughter’s surprise, Mikey follows through. Mikey goes on interviews and fails every one of them after explaining his unique work history. Finally, Mikey goes to an old friend, Leondria (Judy Hill) and asks for a job selling marijuana. She agrees to bring him on but warns him about her strict rules before giving him some garbage weed to sell.
Again, this actually works out, much to the collective surprise of everyone aside from Mikey. Though he’s as obnoxious and shiftless as ever, Mikey is living up to his responsibilities. Mikey even starts to worm his way back into Lexi’s good graces and the two rekindle their sexual relationship which ended when she left her life as an adult film actor behind years earlier to return home to Texas.
Naturally, this happy equilibrium cannot last or there would not be a movie. Thus, at the midpoint, Mikey meets a girl named Strawberry. Strawberry, not her real name, is a 17 year old who works at a local donut shop. Mikey is immediately transfixed by Strawberry, both because he wants desperately to have sex with her and because he sees her youth and naïve beauty as potentially money making assets in the adult film industry.
Returning to the donut shop day after day, the persistent Mikey eventually gets Strawberry to go out with him. They go to a strip club on their first date. They have sex in the back of a truck in the parking lot. They get high on Mikey’s stash of weed and Mikey unveils his plan to take Strawberry to Los Angeles and break her into the adult film business. Yes, it would be fair to say, Mikey is grooming Strawberry and that is the basic plot of Red Rocket. And yet, somehow, Mikey isn’t treated as if he’s the bad guy in this story.
According to many of my fellow film critics, Red Rocket is a subversive dark comedy. I didn’t find the movie funny for one moment but a cursory glance at Rotten Tomatoes indicates that other critics adored this bizarre, creepy, morally ambiguous story about a past his prime adult film actor grooming a teenage girl for porn. I can see where they call the movie subversive and dark, this is certainly a fiery topic to focus a movie on, especially one where the tone is not particularly serious.
In my mind however, there is an obliviousness to Red Rocket that some have interpreted as comedy or perhaps that Tim Heidecker brand of anti-comedy where something is so distinctly unfunny that it becomes funny. I don't see it though, I didn't laugh once at Red Rocket nor do I see the film as a sneaky bit of anti-comic genius, so brilliant that only a select few can see the genius at work.
The sex of Red Rocket is borderline pornographic but not merely because the lead character is a former adult film actor. Rather, this is director Sean Baker being in your face. The confrontational sexuality of Red Rocket is, in my opinion, an attempt to push the audience to see just how offensive the film can be before audiences walk out of the theater in either disgust or embarrassment. This confrontational style can be confused with art by some but not by me. I see this style as something more akin to a shock theater that loses its impact the longer it keeps trying to show you how edgy and transgressive it is.
If Adam Sandler made Red Rocket during his heyday it probably would not be much different than it is in this supposedly art house rendering. Red Rocket as it is, much like Sandler's movies of the 90s and early 200os, gross, obnoxious, unfunny and provocative in the same way a child repeatedly shouting swear words in public is provocative. We in the audience are rendered as parents either disapproving of an unruly child or secretly delighted to see how much that child’s behavior is offensive to others. Perhaps if you are someone who enjoys being uncomfortable or you have delighted in watching a movie that renders others angry or bored, you might just be the audience for Red Rocket.
Red Rocket arrived in a limited theatrical release from A24 on December 10th. If successful the movie will roll out to other, larger theaters later this month or early next month.