It’s a certain kind of disappointment when a sexually explicit American art-house film is just plain tedious, when naked appendages are not enough to suffice for cinematic stimulation. It’s a shame because cinephiles the world over seem to agree that what’s lacking from this nation’s cinema is the nonrepressive sexuality that distinguishes many of the best films from countries more prurient—whose sexual mores are less governed by a so-called silent majority—than our own.
One of the best non-American films from this year is Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s brilliantly subversive Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, whose title alone sets the bar high for an unabashed evisceration of conservative culture. In Bad Luck Banging, a high school teacher is targeted by her students’ parents after a sex tape she made with her husband gets posted to an amateur porn site. The video in question, which features the actors engaging in unsimulated sex, comprises the opening scenes. This isn’t the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first time including something even remotely resembling an honest-to-God sex scene, as is said to occur in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, but rather real porn in the know-it-when-you-see-it sense, which underscores Jude’s scathing rebuke of contemporary hang-ups.
In his annual top ten list for Artforum, John Waters included as his seventh favorite film of the year Red Rocket, the latest from Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), that steadfast chronicler of our nation’s mottled underclass. “Finally,” Waters writes, “fuckin’, fightin’, and frontal nudity are back on the art-house screen, where they belong.” A promising endorsement if there ever was one—for a film that, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the standards set by the king of indecent exposure himself. There is indeed fuckin’, fightin’, and full-frontal nudity to be found in Baker’s overlong, ragtag character study of a suitcase pimp going home to Texas City after falling from stardom in the porn industry. But what it dispenses in salaciousness fails to account for the lack of any meaningful undercurrent that might make the vulgarity interesting.
Simon Rex, a onetime MTV VJ who’s appeared in TV shows like What I Like About You and the once-ubiquitous Scary Movie franchise, stars as Mikey Saber, a down-and-out former porn star on the lookout for a comeback. As Red Rocket opens, Mikey is returning to the house in Texas City where his estranged wife and mother-in-law live, bruised, beat-up, and begging to get back in their good graces. The women let him stay, contingent on his helping with rent and chores. Lil (Brenda Deiss), the mother-in-law, is understandably wary of Mikey, seeing as it’s he who charioted her daughter off to LA to appear in porn, which resulted in her becoming addicted to hard drugs; his ex, Lexi (Bree Elrod), again falls prey to his underhanded yet guileless charm.
At a local donut shop, Mikey meets and becomes enamored with a 17-year-old, redheaded high schooler who goes by the name Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son, in her mid-20s in real life). This first dangled carrot, pulled from the garden of easy provocations, is the egregious age gap between Mikey and Strawberry, who may technically be legal according to Texas law but is still a teenager. That Baker and Chris Bergoch (with whom the director has written his last several films) chose to make her 17—thus making the relationship legal but still very, very icky—feels shamelessly immature, a big “fuck you” to anyone who might have legitimate reservations about a young woman being taken advantage of by a man more than twice her age. This plot point, which isn’t rendered in any particularly shrewd way, veers into the territory of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; I’m sure it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that a beautiful teenage girl would find empowerment and genuine sexual satisfaction from a goofball 40-something whose crowning achievement is winning an adult film award for Best Blowjob Scene in hetero porn (more than one person asks how a man wins when it’s the woman who does all the work), but it seems misguided, if not outright fantastical. Thomas Mann described the theme of his novella Death in Venice (which was adapted into a captivating film by Luchino Visconti) as “passion as confusion and degradation.” This is not that. Passion, here, is vainglorious and indulgent, for both the filmmakers and their characters.
Mikey begins conspiring to turn Strawberry into the porn star he himself once was (or at least thought himself to be), hoarding money from his side hustle dealing weed for a family he worked for as a teenager. He also makes friends with a 20-something neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who eats up Mikey’s self-mythologizing with a spoon. It’s his involvement with these tertiary characters, including Lexi and her mom, that spell his undoing. Strawberry may be willing to overlook Mikey’s obvious lies, but no one else, save for Lonnie, holds him in such high esteem. And it’s Lonnie who suffers the brunt of Mikey’s selfishness, in a turn of events that’s exceptionally morbid and acutely underexplored. Where it might seem like Mikey is finally getting his comeuppance, or at least obtaining some kind of empathy for those around him, he suffers no ramifications for what might be the worst thing he does in the film.
Red Rocket takes place in 2016, on the eve of Donald Trump’s election. The characters’ political leanings are never explicitly stated, though at various points Baker incorporates the diegetic sounds of Fox News and other coverage of the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton. This motif lends nothing to the film, other than the extremely vague suggestion that the characters are likely Trump supporters and that the protagonist is akin to Trump himself, bloviating with an unearned sense of accomplishment for merely being a white heterosexual male with little-to-no self-awareness. But what is there to be gained from this inference? The film is hardly a parable or an allegory. It’s not even that clever—the simplicity of its connection to contemporary politics is befitting of the president represented by that connection. Simple stuff about a simple man. Perhaps that’s the point.
Dir. Sean Baker. R, 128 min. Wide release in theaters.
Less significant even is the recurring use of NSYNC’s 2000 song “Bye Bye Bye,” which is, among other instances, played at times when Mikey and Strawberry are in the nude (in her scene, Son is performing a haunting cover of the pop song), a shallow indignity wherein the filmmakers have imposed meaning that’s just not there. When Son performs the song, it does have the air of a young person eager to escape their small-town upbringing; still, Baker and Bergoch’s ongoing examination of America’s underbelly, focusing on but not limited to sex workers (see: Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project), suggests here little more than a strange obsession with the lurid activities of our nation’s disenfranchised. It’s exploitation in the true sense of the word, intended not to appeal to the type of people depicted onscreen, but rather those in the audience, who live in a place where art-house films are shown and who have the money to see A24’s most recent output. Whether we’re laughing at the characters or empathizing with them, we’re still doing so from a comfortable position, far away from the neon-lit donut shops of iniquity.
And laugh at them we do. I won’t deny that the film is funny in parts, mostly due to Mikey’s asinine behavior and the reaction to it of those around him. But as everything it’s touted to be—a shameless evocation of the “male gaze,” a no-holds-barred raunch fest that goes where others are afraid to (despite Janicza Bravo’s Zola clearly being the best American film showcasing male full-frontal nudity this year)—it comes up short, much like the protagonist himself. The dubious ending feels less like an artful ambiguity and more like a premature ejaculation, even if what went before it felt overly long; like the rambling conversation of a man too sure of himself but with nothing to say, cut short by nothing in particular, never finding its conclusion.