In Review

Film review: Red Rocket

An unlikeable former porn star returns to his Texas roots

Sean Baker has long used his films (Tangerine, The Florida Project) to “expose the underbelly of American life”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail, but with his racy new one, he ventures “lower down than the underbelly”. Simon Rex stars as Mikey, a “well-endowed but washed-up” porn actor who returns to his blue-collar hometown in Texas, just as the 2016 US presidential campaign is getting started, to throw himself at the mercy of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod). Unable to get a job, he turns to drug-dealing instead. Along the way, he charms a “pretty teenager” at the local Donut Hole outlet, hoping she will be his ticket back into the porn industry. “Seedy as it sounds”, the film is made with “tremendous heart and humour”, and it brings an “almost painterly eye” to the “kind of America that Norman Rockwell certainly never depicted”. As in Baker’s other films, the leads are all “relative unknowns”, which brings a welcome “documentary feel”; in particular Rex, who was briefly a porn actor himself years ago, is “a revelation”. 

The film is meant in part to be a comedy, said Bryan Appleyard in The Spectator, but the pity is that it’s overlong and not very funny. Ultimately, it is just another example of the now ubiquitous “new American noir style”, with a hero who is little more than a “bad guy”, surrounded by “nasty people”, hustling in an America imagined as an “impoverished wasteland”. He is dislikeably chauvinistic, said Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman; and unlike Michael Caine’s Alfie, say, Mikey doesn’t develop as a character, and Red Rocket suffers for the lack of it. “A doughnut can get by with a hole in the middle”, but “films without a centre tend to struggle”.

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