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‘Red Rocket’ offers a cautionary tale about life lessons

“Red Rocket” (2021). Cast: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Brittney Rodriguez, Marlon Lambert, Ethan Darbone, Shih-Ching Tsou, David Maxwell, Parker Bigham, Seward B. Lott, Dustin Hart, Brandy Kirl, Elisa Silva. Director: Sean Baker. Screenplay: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. Web site. Trailer.

The temptation to do whatever we want can sometimes be great, especially when the enticements are irresistible. But just because the desire is there, does that mean we should always act on those impulses, particularly when there’s the potential for others to be harmed by what we do? Many of us would justifiably look upon such actions as the height of irresponsibility, our heads spinning and wondering how anyone could be so selfish and inconsiderate. In situations like this, it would seem some hefty life lessons would be in order, the stuff of which provides the basis of the story line in the new dark comedy/cautionary tale, “Red Rocket.”

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) has led quite a colorful life. For the past 17 years, the prolific “adult entertainer” and silver-tongued con man has been living the high life in L.A., earning a bundle of cash and hauling in a boatload of awards for his alleged on-screen sexual prowess.

Or so he says.

Those claims are thrown into doubt, because there’s no actual documentation to support them. You see, as the film begins, a disheveled and battered Mikey steps off a bus in his humble hometown of Texas City. He’s apparently broke and down on his luck, so much so that the prodigal porn star has returned home to regroup and get his life back together, primarily because he has nowhere else to go.

Mikey shows up unannounced on the doorstep of his onetime film partner and embittered, estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). He asks for a place to stay while he looks for work, but Lexi and Lil want nothing to do with him – that is, until he turns on the charm and starts working his polished swindler routine. He talks Lexi and Lil into letting him stay, provided he can pay his way in exchange for the accommodations, a proposal to which he readily agrees, despite having no realistic prospects of finding a job.

Mikey’s unemployability quickly becomes apparent. Having not had a regular job for 17 years, he’s not particularly qualified for anything he applies for. And, when he reluctantly admits what he’s been doing all that time, none of the hiring managers he interviews with have any desire to bring him on board, despite some sheepish curiosity on their part. So, with nothing to lose, he resorts to desperate measures to start bringing in some cash.

After a long absence from his hometown of Texas City, porn star Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex, center) returns home to regroup from a run of bad luck with the aid of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod, right), and mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss, left), in director Sean Baker’s dark comedy/drama, “Red Rocket.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Mikey pays a visit to an old high school acquaintance, Ernesto (Marlon Lambert), to see if he can help out. Ernesto’s mother, Leandria (Judy Hill), is something of a local “godfather” of sorts (and a good friend of Lil), who assists locals with all manner of “favors.” Mikey recalls that Leandria at one time employed a network of street pushers to sell weed for her. When he inquires about this, she confirms that the operation is still in place, one that she now runs with her street-tough daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez). He asks to join her ranks, a request to which she agrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly. However, when he proves to be quite the salesman, thanks again to his smooth-talking ways, she’s reservedly happy with her decision.

Mikey’s happy with the decision, too, since it quickly leaves him flush with cash. He’s quickly able to cover all of the household expenses for himself, Lexi and Lil, which silences most of their prior apprehensions. He even manages to coax Lexi into letting him back into her bed, a decision that soon leaves her satisfied, too. With doubts dispelled, Mikey appears to get himself back on a fairly firm footing in relatively short order. But will things stay that way?

No matter how well he seems to have recovered from his California misfortunes, Mikey just can’t seem to keep his hand out of the cookie jar. He renews old associations and makes some questionable new ones, all of which threaten to place him back in the same circumstances that forced him to leave L.A.

For instance, Mikey begins hanging out with his next door neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), an unemployed caretaker for his widowed father (David Maxwell). Lonnie generally seems legit and makes a good running mate for Mikey, but he’s far from innocent, as evidenced by the scams he runs on the side. Then there’s Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a nearly (but not quite) legal flirt who works as a counter clerk at the neighborhood donut shop with whom he strikes up a tawdry physical relationship. Strawberry’s more than willing to avail herself of the former porn star’s advances, especially since she’s more than a little eager to get into the business herself, a career move that Mikey is just as eager to manage.

After years of estrangement, adult entertainer Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex, left) and his onetime co-star-turned-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod, right) pick up where they left off in “Red Rocket.” Photo courtesy of A24.

To successfully pull off these escapades, however, Mikey has to resort to his trademark less-than-honorable ways. He never hesitates to lie, steal, cheat or use others to get his way, regardless of the fallout that may come out of these schemes – and regardless of who may be hurt by them, be it him or others. He thus repeatedly brings new meaning to the word “scumbag” as he leaves a trail of havoc and carnage. The question that soon arises, of course, is, will he be able to save his neck and pull off his “solutions” successfully? And what will that mean for him and all those caught up in his wake?

From the foregoing summary, it should be fairly apparent what’s amiss here. Just look at Mikey’s track record. Most reasonable folks would probably look at him and wonder what he’s thinking. The faulty nature of his outrageous schemes and scams should be patently obvious, yet he engages in these harebrained ventures anyway. So what’s that all about?

The ways our lives unfold depend on our thoughts, beliefs and intents, the core concept underlying the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these intangible resources in shaping our reality. Given that Mikey willingly pursues these calamities in waiting, there must be some part of him that genuinely believes he can get away with them, no matter how risky, implausible or foolhardy they may inherently be. Yet, when things unsurprisingly fall apart, he always ends up scrambling to try and land on his feet, ever convinced that things will work out. Miraculously, sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t.

We tend to get the best results with our creations when we operate from a position of integrity and authenticity, but those qualities would seem to be wholly lacking in Mikey’s case. Considering the nature of what he tries to pull off, one could readily argue that there isn’t a shred of evidence that he possesses these traits to any meaningful degree, if at all. And that’s often borne out when circumstances blow up in his face.

Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the nearly (but not quite) legal flirt who works at a neighborhood donut shop has eyes for a former porn star and what he might be able to do for her in the outrageous new dark comedy/drama, “Red Rocket.” Photo courtesy of A24.

However, in a strange sort of way, I’d argue that Mikey actually is being authentic, no matter how foul some of his endeavors might be. He may be genuinely yet unsuspectingly pursuing these undertakings as a means to learn some valuable life lessons, most notably those involving principles that he’s otherwise totally lacking. As odd as that may sound, placing an emphasis on our deficiencies can be one of the most effective ways to learn about (and, one would hope, to embrace) what’s missing.

For example, Mikey frequently operates from a standpoint of doing whatever it takes to get what he wants and to save his own hide. This is the practice of un-conscious creation, wherein we focus our beliefs exclusively on achieving our objectives with no regard for the associated consequences, including those that impact others around us. Using this as his principal modus operandi, Mikey often realizes what he’s trying to accomplish but leaves a trail of disaster behind him, one that sometimes even catches up with him. His beliefs are exclusively targeted toward what he desires, even if those close to him are harmed, damage that he casually and callously dismisses, rarely without attempting to make amends for them (unless, of course, if it’s in his own best interests). One might legitimately wonder how he can live with himself like this.

Ironically, many of those in Mikey’s life exhibit comparable qualities at times. Despite their chastisement of the protagonist, many of them engage in pursuits that could be seen as just as dastardly as those of the person they so vocally criticize. Indeed, when it comes to getting what they want, they’re often eager to do whatever it takes to see their goals realized, even if they’re not as obvious or animated as Mikey. Indeed, they frequently and unapologetically bring new meaning to the words “self-serving” and “repulsive,” qualities they possess that are often on par with the object of their sanctimonious ridicule.

Former adult entertainer Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex, left) and his next door neighbor/running mate, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone, right), find ways to have fun and get into trouble in the new dark comedy/drama, “Red Rocket.” Photo courtesy of A24.

There’s certainly nothing noble in attitudes like this. However, in their own weird, backhanded way, they’re also an effective means for getting our own attention, especially among those who get soaked by the backsplash of their own wayward materializations. Such splashes of cold water have the potential to make us aware of our actions and their consequences. They thus present us with opportunities to learn those aforementioned life lessons, such as those associated with absent virtues like responsibility and integrity. When we manifest circumstances that can help to make us aware of these concepts, or when we witness others following suit in their own endeavors, these influences just might start to rub off on us. And, when this happens, it could prompt us to begin changing our beliefs, objectives and outcomes. A change of heart like that can go a long way toward setting us on a new life path, one on which we might begin to find ourselves being repulsed by what we may have done in the past. There’s something to be said for that, even if we take the long way around in discovering that.

It’s at times like that when we come to a milestone precipice in our lives. We have an opportunity for redemption, provided we consciously, willingly and deliberately make an effort to change our nature, our beliefs and our lives. At the same time, we can also ignore this opportunity and potentially face the prospect of stagnating, digging ourselves into a deeper hole and amassing a jackpot of karma points that we’ll inevitably have to work through at some point. By failing at the life lessons that present themselves now, we’ll have to take another shot at them later, a process not unlike repeating a grade in school but usually with tougher conditions, higher stakes and bigger consequences.

Do we really want to do that? I sure wouldn’t. The prospect is rather daunting. In light of that, then, it would behoove us to take the message of this cautionary tale to heart. It’s unclear what Mikey is going to do with his own scenario, but maybe his example will inspire those of us who feel the need to change our ways while we still have the chance.

Adult entertainer Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex, left) goes on quite a rollercoaster ride – both literally and figuratively – with a flirtatious donut store clerk, Strawberry (Suzanna Son, right), in director Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket.” Photo courtesy of A24.

While the tawdry salaciousness of writer-director Sean Baker’s latest may readily offend the sensibilities of many viewers, the film nevertheless serves up a pointed premise with wickedly biting humor thanks to a loathsome but bumbling protagonist who asks for trouble at every turn. The result is a series of edgy, hilarious encounters whose ample, well-earned laughs make up for whatever might come across as patently disgusting, especially in instances when chickens come home to roost. Reminiscent of the filmmaker’s previous works “Tangerine” (2015) and “The Florida Project” (2017), “Red Rocket” presents us with a gritty, uncensored look at the American underbelly, but with more sustained humor this time out, despite a handful of serious moments included for good measure. The film is admittedly a little long, meandering and episodic at times, but those faults are made up for by a captivating, engaging narrative and the fine performances of Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, and the rest of the picture’s ensemble cast, many of whom are not professional actors. This offering definitely won’t appeal to everyone, and sensitive viewers should probably stay away. But, for those who appreciate originality and inventiveness with a blatantly twisted sense of humor and a clear (though not heavy-handed) cautionary message, this “rocket” may just send you into orbit. The film is currently playing theatrically.

Some might find it surprising that a film like this would earn considerable critical recognition, but “Red Rocket” has done just that. The picture earned a Palme d’Or nomination at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. It was also named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 films of 2021. And, in the Independent Spirit Awards competition, the pictured captured nominations for Simon Rex and Suzanna Son as best leading male and best supporting female, respectively.

Reckless behavior may have elements of fun and excitement associated with it, but it also carries potential consequences, some of which could be quite drastic. While we might enjoy some short-term thrills through such experiences, we could also come away from them burdened by significant weights on our shoulders. Do we really want to do that? If not, we’d better wake up to the reality of our circumstances, adopting a sense of integrity and responsibility and adjusting our beliefs and behavior to avoid awaiting calamities before it’s too late.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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