Now Baker and Ducournau have returned to Cannes, this time competing for the Palme d’Or. Watching Baker and his cast walk the red carpet at the Lumière theater this afternoon, I may have been projecting, but I perceived a sense of vindication, both for an overjoyed Baker and for Cannes. I have no inside info, but I bet that Cannes’ head programmer, Thierry Frémaux, and president, Pierre Lescure, who were as usual both waiting at the top of the carpeted stairs to greet the film’s team, weren’t thrilled to have “The Florida Project” and the Fortnight steal a bit of their thunder four years ago.
Does Baker’s “Red Rocket” live up to the last film? Well, not quite. It doesn’t have Brooklynn Prince or Willem Dafoe, for a start, and part of the power of “The Florida Project” was rooted in its location, the incongruously grim motel sprawl on the outskirts of Disney World. You can’t make that movie twice, and it would be hard to find a comparable setting.
But “Red Rocket” is a joy anyway, a raucous comedy that starts as a sort of condescending doofus movie before revealing a deeply moving camaraderie among its characters. It begins with the return of Mikey Saber (the rapper and comedian Simon Rex) to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, near Galveston. His arrival, by bus, is scored to ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” which sums up what everyone wants to say to him when he gets there.
His plan is to crash with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss), who are so cool to the idea that he offers to chip in on the rent. He’ll pull his weight, he promises. (Look, he’s even holding a door for them!) But Mikey, who has enjoyed a degree of niche acclaim working in Los Angeles as a porn star, is all but unemployable. Inviting prospective bosses to look up his credits probably doesn’t help. So he turns to selling pot—that is, when not smoking the stash that Leondria, who manages the local scene, entrusts to him. (Leondria is played by Judy Hill—in real life, the New Orleans bar owner from Roberto Minervini’s excellent documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?“) The drug trade’s illicit nature is perfect for someone with Mikey’s skill set. “I’m just glad weed is still illegal in Texas,” he remarks at one point. “You have no idea how hard it is to move flower in L.A. right now.” In what is decidedly a car town, he travels by bicycle.
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