Top 20 Films of 2021: #8- Bo Burnham: Inside


For longer than I can remember a certain breed of comedian (we’ll just call them Gervaises) has loudly and performatively insisted that comedy is dying on the vine. “Comedy is over” has been the doomsday refrain of a whole host of thin-skinned and overwhelmingly male (give or take a Whitney Cummings) standup comics, beside themselves that audiences are no longer letting homophobia, transphobia and bigotry slide just because the person saying it is at a comedy club. It’s a hysterical bad faith response easily debunked by simply watching or listening to any of the numerous hilarious and empathetic comedic geniuses working today, from Patton Oswalt to Jenny Slate to Nathan Fielder. Proof that comedy is far from over exists right here in the fact that, for the first time in my years writing reviews, a comedy special has ranked as one of my ten best films of the year. Innovative, comedian-turned-exciting-new-director Bo Burnham’s (now two for two after 2018’s humane and deliciously awkward adolescent dramedy Eighth Grade) creatively restless and anxiously topical “special” is a visionary meditation on where this poor world stands, sent out from the lockdown prison  of one 30-year old man’s cramped apartment. In one of Bo Burnham: Inside‘s first songs (oh yes, this is a musical comedy, a term that is ill-equipped to contain the sheer scope of what Burnham is up to), our quarantined funnyman host also asks the question: Is comedy over? He blessedly means it in a very different way than your typical disgruntled male rights activist. What Burnham is bemoaning is no the comic’s sacred right to offend without critique. He is asking the larger question posed by Andrei Tarkovsky’s bleak but life-affirming masterpiece Andrei Rublev. In times of extreme sorrow and strife, does art have any real power? Are literature and music and now comedy nice things that wither in the face of real disaster? As we look out our windows at the rise in ocean levels and in worldwide authoritarianism, is a comedian’s punchline or silly ditty really worth all that much? In that song, simply titled “Comedy”, Burnham asks, “Should I be joking at a time like this?”, as a canned studio audience laugh track plays behind him. He just as quickly puts his own selfish solipsism in the crosshairs by recommitting to “healing the world with comedy”. Like the rest of Inside, the song is musing on the limited power of art while also skewering the vain folly of thinking that our good intentions and kind sentiments can fix what is broken. “If you wake up in a house that’s filled with smoke, “Burnham softly croons over an 80’s synth tone, “Don’t panic. Call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”

Limits are not just Burnham’s key themes (COVID’s limited spatial freedom, limited emotional energy, and a world whose days feel increasingly limited). Limits also provide the film with the great production challenge that makes the whole thing go, as Burnham tries to make use of a single room, a Casio keyboard, some rudimentary lightshow equipment, some microphones, and a camera to create a work of art that feels expansive and boundary-pushing for all its claustrophobia. It is the very fact that he is working with a sparse set of tools and no visible collaborators that makes his haunting, manic depressive message in a bottle feel so perversely fun and spontaneous. Inside is a relentlessly melancholy film and arguably the most downbeat piece of work to ever earn the classification of comedy special. But it is also very, very funny. Burnham knows what he is doing and the goal is to leave us in a heady, contemplative  and disoriented headspace. Yet he also finds room for a gleefully silly song about FaceTiming with your folks, a Sesame Street parody with dystopian undertones, and a riotously scathing pump-up tribute song for Jeffrey Bezos, sung with barely contained rage. It may be too soon to identify a signature style that ties Inside together with Eighth Grade and Burnham’s past stage-based standup specials. But what stands out early in his directorial career is an unpretentious appetite for experimentation and an appreciation for cringe humor done in the right way. He has always had a Weird Al playfulness about him. His first instinct is to keep things light, goofy, and anarchic toward pop culture trends. What makes Inside so captivating and alive is Burnham’s willingness to let that more winking sensibility merge and mutate with a newfound sense of real darkness; the dread he has come to feel in these increasingly troubled few years. In taking a year-plus to document the effects of quarantining on his mental well-being, he makes the important choice to lean into that dread. To not worry if his anxiety and depression will overwhelm the comedy in what is nominally billed as a comedy special. He trusts that even all-consuming panic and mental disintegration can be funny, and he is absolutely right. He fully gives himself over to the demented experiment and ends up duetting with his own demons like a mad drunkard in some ramshackle piano bar.

If art does sometimes feel powerless to offset a mounting ledger of catastrophes, it is still one of the only positive byproducts of tragedy. The hope of anyone living through those much-feared interesting times is that the trauma and adversity will at least provide the inspiration for a handful of brilliant songs or films. The sweet pixie dust foxtrots from artists like Benny Goodman, which enchanted and soothed a generation grappling with devastating poverty and staring down the Nazis. The brilliant noir films cooked up in a climate of post-World War II paranoia. Th ecstatically beautiful, angry, and playful rock and roll that exploded form the powder keg of the 1960s. In that spirit, Bo Burnham has presented us with the first masterpiece to come directly from the monumental tragedy of COVID-19. Inside is not simply an examination of the mental toll of having to isolate to keep each other safe, though it speaks to that quite eloquently. It is also an audacious and formally brilliant visual essay of the COVID lockdown experience. The struggle to find something new to do after months and months in a single space. The oscillating between morose despair and bursts of manic, pent-up energy. The way so many stayed glued to the insanity and the reports of death because it at least provided some kind of emotional rush when everything else felt mired in the doldrums. Burnham uses tricks of light, projections on his walls, and a full-body shaggy camouflage suit to conjure up his own subjective experience of lockdown. Beyond the songs and their messages, Inside‘s stylistic creativity tells a story all by itself. The story of a person trying every last idea he can think of to occupy himself and distract his brain from the stark reality that he is stuck in a room watching the outside world get worse. In the end, as the physical world full of disease, mass shootings and mental illness gets more dangerous to exist in, we find ourselves sheltering indoors more and more. An as our real homes inevitably come to feel more claustrophobic and oppressively familiar, we all get funneled toward a world that shapeshifts and tantalizes us with the possibility of transcending our cramped physical reality. A world that makes us a Faustian offer of never-ending stimulation and pacification. The prophecy uttered by The Social Network‘s Sean Parker has come true. We are all living on the Internet.

Inside is a film rich with ideas about the ominous, disquieting, and fascinatingly absurd trappings of life in the current age of the Internet. The late capitalist Internet. The Trump Internet. The Internet with the power to launch righteous progressive movements and just as quickly funnel them via algorithm into echo chambers that dull their rhetorical power. As Burnham remarks in the devastating and intimate Father John Misty sendup, “That Funny Feeling, “In honor of the revolution, it’s half off at the Gap.” He laments a culture where corporations can leverage the name-checking of just causes into a rote dollar value. “Who are you, Bagel Bites?,” Burnham asks with tongue barely kept in cheek. Bo Burnham has long made a living off of pitch-perfect spoofs of post-2010 musical styles and social media trends. But Inside marks an evolution. Any sense of glibness for the thing being parodied has given way to something more grounded and less politically ambivalent. They say a great parody artist should have some love for whatever they are parodying and Inside finds Burnham clinging to some vestige of that love. A song like his Grammy-winning banger “All Eyes on Me” is just too heartfelt and genuinely cathartic not to have been made with real affection for the woozy, cerebral R&B that artists like Beyonce, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and James Blake made over the last decade. He loves the form and the sound of this music. And he has always used modern styles to his own Puckish ends; to playfully and knowingly rib at club culture and modern materialism. But the Bo Burnham of Inside has lost any trace of smirking archness. He’ll still give you a sparkly slow jam about the difficulty of deciphering emojis in “Sexting” or skewer social media tropes in “White Woman’s Instagram”. But he is unafraid to explore the serious harm of a digital culture that encourages constant saturation and precious little time for processing and unpacking. A platform that, as he sings on the towering standout centerpiece “Welcome To the Internet”, tempts us with “a little bit of everything all of the time.” Wearing demonic round shades, Burnham looks like the unsavory beatnik second coming of the apolitical master of ceremonies in Cabaret. Social media as the impartial, chaotically fun drug dealer to us all. Whether helping a disgruntled loner build a bomb or helping you learn which Power Ranger best represents you, the Internet takes all comers and refuses no requests.

Among his laundry list of anxieties, ranging from the global apocalypse down to lifelong panic attacks and agoraphobia, one major anxiety seems to be how our digital solipsism, that insatiable thirst for likes and followers, is cutting us off at the knees in terms of being able to do effectuate meaningful progress. Hobbling our power to do anything about the threats to freedom and continued terrestrial existence. Comedy obviously isn’t going to save the world, but what is going to save us if we are all lost in an opioid haze of narcissism and needy vanity? We have great public stages where we can shout many noble and eloquent words at each other, but Burnham mourns how the power of those words is becoming diluted. Inside‘s visual style is brilliant because it makes us feel more and more like prisoners of a demented, echoing funhouse. The features of the small space are regularly obscured and distorted by disco lights and lasers and skewed camera angles. Burnham projects clouds and sky onto the walls as a reminder of what we’re missing or maybe in a feeble attempt to make this space feel like the new outside. In the middle of a YouTube video advising people not to commit suicide, he smash-cuts to the now-filmed anti-suicide PSA playing across the screen of his own chest. He stares vacantly at the back of the room, uninterested in his own pious voice. The deeper I progressed into the vortex of Inside, the more I started to realize that this isn’t just an impressionistic, gonzo snapshot of COVID quarantining. It’s reckoning with a death of the soul and mind that may have begun a decade ago or more. He seems haunted by a need to figure out when everything went wrong. “You say the world is ending, honey, it already did,” Burnham’s auto-tuned voice croons. Does Burnham mean the start of the pandemic and its cataclysmic death count or does he mean the world ended at some earlier time that we somehow didn’t register? Inside was filmed in response to lockdown but its mournful subject is a kind of lockdown of the human spirit that predates March 2020. The maddening thesis of this hilariously devastating musical is that a cavalcade of pre-pandemic ills (gun violence, the eroding of empathy and community, Trumpism, the Internet-ification of our every word, thought, and social activity) conspired to trap us inside in a way that may be irrevocable. Locked inside of ourselves and our neuroses. Shuttered away in rooms within rooms within rooms within rooms.

Inside is a comedy special on  Netflix. It’s occasionally haha-funny, but more often than not it’s hugging-your-knees-and-nervously-chuckling-to-yourself-in-a-corner-funny. To be fair, still funny. That still leaves it as one of 2021’s comedic treasures. Even if, as Burnham himself theorizes, “comedic” seems like a feeble word to encompass what it is going for. And if the price of good, rich  laughter is hyperventilating a bit and questioning the very fabric of modern reality, I’m ready to call that sanity well spent. I’ve paid more of my mental stability for far lesser works of art. I paid theatre prices to see Tom Hooper’s Cats, for Macavity’s sake! And, with the right tour guide, a nice voyage into madness can be a vital and liberating experience. From the time I was old enough to drive myself to a movie theatre, I’ve been an ardent fan of animator Don Hertzfeldt, ever since I saw his Oscar-nominated short film Rejected at Berkeley’s sadly defunct Shattuck Cinemas. The singularly macabre auteur makes films that puncture social niceties, grapple with ennui and mental illness and dance along the nexus between what is real and imagined. Hertzfeldt has the sheer talent to make a schizophrenic man dreaming of an anthropomorphized talking fish feel both upsetting and uncomfortably uproarious. More than anything, Bo Burnham: Inside feels like the first time a live-action director has taken up Hertzfeldt’s mantle as a chronicler of terrifying, claustrophobic modern absurdity. The first film to bring that unsteady, humanely maniacal sensibility out of Hertzfeldt’s Shanty Toon Town and into the three-dimensional world. Like Don, Bo chuckles into the abyss. And when the abyss chuckles back, the sound is unmistakably that of canned laughter.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #9- The Green Knight

The Green Knight Movie Poster — Wild Tales Illustration

It seems a little funny that the 2022 Academy Awards went in so rapturously for King Richard, a modern sports film with a title that makes it sound like it could be about a medieval sovereign, yet turned a blind eye to the numerous stories of Old World regal gallantry that 2021 had to offer. It was something of a small boom year for stories from the pre-Middle Ages, between Joel Coen’s stunning and singular expressionist take on Macbeth to Ridley Scott’s trenchant and triumphant late career peak, The Last Duel. Scott’s film felt bracingly modern, while Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth felt brackishly ancient, like a primeval curse dredged out of the depths of a steaming swamp. David Lowery’s The Green Knight, 2021’s high watermark for cinema that could have been adapted from an illuminated manuscript, falls into that ancient, yellowed Macbeth camp. Its greatest aesthetic virtues (it is the kaleidoscopic counterpoint to Tragedy of Macbeth‘s chilly blacks and whites) make us feel a million miles removed from the present day and maybe from any day that ever existed. We feel the chill of the truly strange and inscrutably archaic, the sense that ghosts and lost spirits are lurking not far from us. As with Macbeth, a high and reaspy voice ushers us into the story. It speaks softly at first of King Arthur and we gaze upon a floating crown descending onto the head of some shadowy robed figure in a dimly lit throne room. Then it intones, “But this is not that King,” and the anonymous monarch bursts into a roaring crackle of flames. The voice rises to a Gollum-like bellow as it promises a rousing tale. There is a kind of dissonance at work. The words themselves are not sinister; the speaker is simply promising a rousing story to come. But her voice is beyond disquieting. DIrector David Lowery wants us to feel off balance and just the right amount of menaced. Adventures and wonders lie ahead, but he is also letting us know that his The Green Knight will be tinted with an air of the ominous and unknowable. If we are expecting a swashbuckler, he is preparing us for something with a lot more dread, mystery and danger than we are used to from the average knight’s tale. It’s not uncharacteristic of this relatively young auteur. The man who made A Ghost Story can’t resist imbuing his latest and best film with a touch of the spectral.

While past Lowery films like A Ghost Story and the elegiac Robert Redford bank robber tone poem The Old Man and the Gun had some bravura setpieces to recommend them, their aesthetic was also decidedly lo-fi at the same time. To use a music metaphor, The Green Knight is Lowery’s chance to leave the bedroom studio and make what feels like a glam record by comparison. From its atmospheric, dizzyingly edited Christmas Day opening to its giddy, head-dropper of an ending, The Green Knight is Lowery’s first complete showstopper. It’s a gorgeously tactile, bewitching, and frequently disquieting bit of old legend come to life. In telling the tale of Gawain (not yet Sir Gawain of Arthurian fame when we meet him) and the Green Knight, it feels like Lowery himself is entering the royal banquet hall of King Arthur and answering the ruler’s call for an outrageous and stupefying story of bravery and peril; of men not only leaving home but leaving the comfort zone of a physical realm they thought they knew. The Green Knight‘s story begins on a Christmas morning when heedless, cocksure Gawain (a striking and terrifically dialed-in Dev Patel) leaves his mother and lover to go dine in the castle of his uncle, King Arthur. The kindly, aging King graciously offers Gawain an empty chair next to him and his Queen. Then the good King rises from his seat and asks for one among his dear guests to bewitch him with a great story of derring-do. Before any man can step up to answer the call, however, the titular Green Knight himself (or itself) strides into the hall to kick David Lowery’s movie into action. He is plainly something other than a mere man. He has a face like a tree trunk and a beard of mossy green bark. With each step he emits low creaks like a swaying ship’s mast. This unsettling being removes a large axe from its sheath and proposes a yuletide game to all present. He will offer any man the chance to strike him in whatever place he chooses and as hard as he likes. In turn, that man must journey far away to the Green Chapel exactly one year from this day, seek out the Knight and let him return that same blow. Ambitious, invincible Gawain steps up and borrows a sword. The King emphatically reminds Gawain that this is only meant to be a game. Gawain barely registers his wise uncle’s warning. He surges angrily forward as if into battle and cleaves off his arboreal challenger’s head. But the Green Knight does not die. He merely picks up his own detached head, mounts his steed and rides from the castle leaving two chilling words ringing in the impetuous youth’s ears: one year. What follows is Gawain’s quest to seek out his destiny and to reckon with the reality of his own likely beheading.

What Lowery, adapting a classic, albeit lesser-known, piece of Arthurian legend, is doing is to challenge Gawain in much the same way as the Green Knight does in that early showdown. The idea is to test the hotheaded, action-oriented notion of what an adventure story must be. Gawain fails to recognize the Knight’s challenge as friendly gamesmanship and his empty, short-sighted braggadocio sets him on an entirely different kind of hero’s journey. One that he may very well never return from. Lowery’s tale is full of gob-smacking wonder, ingenious effects and eye-popping cinematography, but it is unlike a great many tales of brave knights.  For all his posturing, Gawain is not a knight and he rarely, if ever, acts bravely. Lowery has no intention of making Gawain look like a swashbuckling badass because he is nothing of the sort. If Gawain is to maybe one day become the figure of Arthurian legend that he is meant to be, he must slay the dragon of his own blustery youth first. From encounters with bandits to doing a favor for a martyred girl’s ghost, the chapters of Gawain’s story consistently undercut and deflate him. If nothing else, The Green Knight is a great tale of what it means to be young, dumb and full of one’s self. By contrast, Sean Harris keenly and movingly plays the great King Arthur, that most celebrated of legendary kings, not as a chest-thumping showboat but as a man whose encroaching years have blessed him with kindness and soft-spoken humility. It is for the young to see heroism as a thing of braying outward confidence. But what Gawain’s regal uncle values most is his nephew’s integrity; that he learns from his macho mistake and somehow finds the good fortune to return to him alive. He knows that if Gawain can somehow survive the cost of his own juvenile egotism, he might get far enough away from these youthful delusions of invincibility and one day become a person worthy of a real hero’s tale. But he must account for his actions alone. He must be willing to die if he’s to have any chance of becoming a great man; the great man he foolishly thought he could become with one rash swing of a borrowed sword.

What makes The Green Knight radical and refreshing isn’t just how vibrantly it distills the pure psychedelic essence of Arthurian lore. It’s in how Lowery investigates and tweaks the notion of what a hero’s tale can (and maybe more often should) be. The most uninvolving hero’s journeys concern protagonists who are already set in stone; perfect and competent with no need of improvement or growth. The folly of too many such stories is conceiving of the journey as a mere traversal across terrestrial distance when it is much more important to map the aspiring hero’s journey across the landscape of their heart and conscience. We should track them as they trek across the undiscovered lands of their own integrity and will. It is the a thread common to heroic narratives as varied as Die Hard’s John McClane in Nakatomi Tower and Frodo Baggins on the road to Mordor that a hero should undergo a trek across their inner selves to mirror and refract their physical journey. Gawain’s mission is fascinating not only because it is rich in incident and otherworldly sights, but because of how much it challenges his emotional maturity at every step. Which is to say what little emotional maturity he has has at this early and impulsive stage of his life. And the real test is not surviving the volley of bandits, ghosts and giants he encounters, but the impossible passive gauntlet that waits in the Green Chapel. All the strange new dangers rattle him far less than the certain test at the end of the road. In Lowery’s tale, all the unknown in the world is a cakewalk when compared to the thing Gawain knows he must do. For all its rousing setpieces, the journey of The Green Knight and Gawain steadily wends away from macho antics and feats of physical prowess. Temper and rash action have caused all of Gawain’s woes and now the real test of manhood is whether he has the integrity to honorably, humbly submit to his challenger and give up what he owes. Some thrilling spectacle occurs along the way, but the real voyage of the film is Gawain’s quest to find true valor and honor. An honor that is meek and humble and entirely in opposition to ostentatious, stereotypically manly chest-thumping.

The Green Knight is a story of human frailty and pride. Gawain starts the film arrogant and blind. He is a callow Prince Hal laboring under the delusion that he is already Henry V. He has done precious little in his life but drink and fuck at the time that he steps up to what he mistakes as a basic feat of masculine might. David Lowery’s target is the kind of ego and insecure bluster that masquerades as strength. To quote the animated series Steven Universe (another great hero story that is more interested in its hero’s inner journey toward emotional maturity than in the battles he fights), Gawain must learn to be strong in the real way. And the very real possibility that he may not live to apply the genuine strength he acquires just makes his challenge all the more poignant. While they may not appear to have a lot of superficial similarities (apart from the fact that both contain a ghost), what connects The Green Knight to Lowery’s masterful A Ghost Story are characters stubbornly clinging to old notions of reality and the need for them to complete painful metamorphoses, even if it radically alters or ends life (or death) as they know it. What fate awaits Gawain past his daunting challenge remains unclear to us and to him right up to the film’s final frame. But that is very much the idea. The true valor he has been unwittingly marching toward is the courage to move toward what he does not know; to accept what lies beyond the veil between a world he vainly thought he and whatever comes next. The fact that the next chapter for Gawain could be either adulthood of his bloody demise just means that true maturity entails coming to terms with our own endings. Whether it is the end of youth, of ego, or of our very lives is irrelevant. Whatever it is that lies at the conclusion of our journeys, we must reckon with it if we are to ever see ourselves as people worth looking up to. And after all the bravado and action, it is the quiet acceptance of things we can neither control nor change that truly tests our mettle.

The Green Knight is also a Christmas movie (that is, one set during the yuletide season) that actually feels possessed by a kind of Christmas spirit. Like A Christmas Carol, it is a bracing, wintry parable about a human being who must learn a lesson and change for the better. There is some mystery as to whether it is too late for him, but there is a hope that it might not be. The tale is filled with an atmosphere of December. A brisk chill in the air, the smell of food wafting through hallways and alleys, and an ineffable feeling of mystery and magic hanging over everything. And kicking it all off is a group of merry revelers huddled together, drinks in hand, ready to be transported by a story. But instead of these knights hearing an old tale of courage and peril, it is we the audience that are brought in through the screen and given the chance to see an old legend play out in a new and exciting way. A chance to delight in things ethereal and supernatural, ephemeral and inexplicable. An occasion for wide-eyed wonder. But also, like any good Christmas tale, it is an occasion for inward reflection and the fortifying of conscience; to find ourselves in the story. In presenting the tale of a thoughtless mistake, it is implicitly also a story of wanting to do better even if we do not yet understand how. It is a reminder of the goodness and the weakness inside of us and the hope of a fresh chance to commit to the path that is virtuous and true and more often than not arduous. The Green Knight sparks the imagination and warms the belly like a pewter mug full of mulled wine. It is a film I look forward to adding to my own list of Christmas cinema classics. A beautiful and sparkling bauble and a bewitching morality play. A festive thing of beauty to be unpacked and treasured at the end of each too short year.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #10- Red Rocket

In 2017, Sean Baker made The Florida Project, my favorite film of that year. It would have been my favorite film of a great many years that it might have come out. In it, he directed genius screen actor Willem Dafoe to the best work of his career, gave us one of the best child performances of all time from Brooklynn Prince, and also got stellar work out of a young woman most famous for being an Instagram influencer. And, following up on the talent he showed with his iPhone-shot 2015 gem Tangerine, he created a luscious hardscrabble world populated with non-professional actors and got them all to give lovely, lived-in performances too. So when I saw that Baker’s next film, Red Rocket, would star former MTV VJ-turned-Scary-Movie-franchise player as a shifty porn star, I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders. Nothing about that premise sounded like the stuff masterpieces are made of and I have never once been impressed by Simon Rex. Nonetheless, I smiled to myself and said, “I guess I’ll be raving about Oscar-worthy Simon Rex a year from now.” It has now been more than a year since I made that half-joking prediction, and I am here to say that it has absolutely come true. Simon Baker has directed a retired C-list actor whose most recent brush with fame was as a comedy rapper named Dirt Nasty to what is arguably the best male performance of 2021. Because fucking of course he has. Because, just as a small part of myself made that prediction in jest, a much larger part of myself knows better than to bet against Sean Baker. But the wondrous thing about a Baker film is the potential it makes you see in everyone he works with too, whether it’s Willem Dafoe or someone with no acting on their resume. And here let me stop making this all about Sean Baker, because I am fully done disrespecting Simon Rex in this review or anywhere else in life. Baker may make miracles possible, but the work Simon Rex has pulled off here is a mighty dramatic and comedic accomplishment that should utterly recontextualize how people see him. It was unsurprisingly too much to hope for that the year’s best leading male performance sneak into an Actor lineup that had room for Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos. But I can only hope that this does mean the start of new things for Simon Rex. If nothing else, watching him go for broke (even broker than the character he plays) in Baker’s gonzo neorealist satire of hustlers and hucksterism should show all of Hollywood that he has a potential that very few of us had been able to see.

And, for anyone venturing out into Baker’s small but luminously empathetic filmography for the first time, showing new sides and facets of disrespected and marginalized people is exactly what the inventive auteur is all about. Framed in a certain way, Baker’s story is another tale of an impoverished underdog trying to grind out some modicum of success and happiness for himself. Out of work adult film actor Mikey Sabre rolls broken, bruised and destitute into his tiny Texas hometown, the latest sad sack to be sent packing by the city of Los Angeles. Like former Baker protagonists (Tangerine‘s Sin-Dee, The Florida Project‘s Halley), Mikey is no stranger to bad decisions, but those other protagonists were also very easy to root for in all their hardscrabble tenacity. It’s less clear from almost the first minutes if MIkey will be deserving of that same empathy, a fact you might glean when his ex-wife greets her prodigal spouse with curse words and demands to remove himself from her property. To be clear, Mikey Sabre is a real piece of work. He is irresponsible, narcissistic, impulsive, and self-justifying. He might have “The check’s in the mail” tattooed on him somewhere. After worming his way back into the house of his ex-wife and mother-in-law with promises to help them with rent, he very quickly starts insinuating himself into the lives of former friends and colleagues. Whatever humility and pity we might have ascribed to him when he entered the picture broke and beat up quickly evaporate when we realize that Mikey will simply never stop trying to work the angles. No sooner has he seemed to get back in the good graces of his former spouse and established himself with a profitable drug-dealing gig, his eyes start drifting to bigger opportunities. When he meets a winsome and Lolita-esque cashier named Strawberry at a local donut shop, his eyes fill with cartoon dollar signs and the goal of a peaceful, harmonious homecoming ceases to be enough to satisfy him. His restless Mountain Dew imagination sets his sights on making Strawberry into the next adult film star, setting himself up as her manager, and rolling back into Los Angeles to lay waste to his naysayers. That is what he wants, but it is almost folly to ask what MIkey Sabre wants because Mikey Sabre is really just want personified. His wild-eyed, gonzo narcissism makes him the kind of person for whom the goalposts of success are forever being moved relative to how well he’s doing. And it is possible and not the least bit wrong to go through the entire film without finding him genuinely likable. But, for my part, I defy anyone to not find MIkey Sabre fascinating, compelling, and sometimes even improbably endearing.
After the luminous pathos of The Florida ProjectRed Rocket is something of a return to the raucous and manic comedic sensibilities of Tangerine and my worry coming in would be that Baker’s faultless empathy would somehow finally fail him; that this decidedly white trash character would finally land him on the wrong side of condescension and mean-spiritedness. I don’t know why I ever had that worry. Sean Baker still fuses fully tactile working class (and unemployed) settings with a sense of ragged vivacity that can run the gamut from screwball to Felliniesque (he sure does love to capture interesting faces and body types). His worlds are populated with persons too unique and specific to fit into your average social drama. And he seems incapable of belittling or talking down to a single inhabitant of these tiny, hard-scrabble universes. It’s no small feat here because he introduces a protagonist in Mikey Sabre who is not afraid to show condescension himself. For all I’ve spoke of Simon Rex’s marvelous creation as an endearing underdog, there is also a fair bit of ugliness in the way he looks down at the small potatoes stomping grounds that birthed him; the place where he suddenly finds himself an economic prisoner. Even as Mikey slides back into the rhythms of downtrodden Texas life, he makes no secret of his feelings that he was made for much grander things. And yet, in spite of Mikey’s braying, sometimes downright mean bravado, Sean Baker loves him too up to a point. When Mikey shows some unexpected early flashes of grit and and work ethic, I think Baker is proud to see him not fall into some easy deadbeat archetype. There is more to Mikey than meets the eye, just as surely as there is less to Mikey than Mikey himself would have you believe. I think Baker is happy to once again give us a character who confounds our expectations for him and is not simply a victim of impoverishment. But it is also clear enough that Mikey is not the mpathetic lover of humanity that Sean Baker is, which makes him altogether different from even a frustrating Baker character like Florida Project‘s struggling single mother Halley. Mikey is undeniably toxic. He is a vampire in every emotional and metaphorical sense of the word. The journey of Red Rocket is how he improves his prospects and what schemes he hatches, but it is readily apparent that Mike Sabre’s relationship to other human beings will always be parasitic to some major extent. And his sympathetically vulnerable veneer quickly crumbles when he sees he can do better than simply move back in with his middle-aged wife. As soon as he meets the not-yet-18 Strawberry, his eyes are filled with dollar signs and money shots, and Baker makes no comment as to which desire of Mikey’s we should regard as more perverse. Red Rocket sees Sean Baker applying his sense of lush humanity to his least sympathetic character and the challenge he and Simon Rex set for themselves produces a work of art every bit as singular and intoxicating (albeit in a 4 Loko kind of way) as Baker’s last two, more outwardly empathetic films. I imagine Red ROcket‘s Mikey Sabre may shake off some viewers like a vulgar bucking bronco and I don’t think Baker judges anyone for despising Mikey at some point on this journey. But he he is also with MIkey, selfishness be damned, for the full two hours. And not as some sort of edgelord exercise in seeing how long we can put up with an unforgivable piece of shit. Baker sticks in Mikey’s corner because there are traits and ideas in Mikey worth the exploring. And because looking deeply into the souls of difficult, aggravating human beings is what Sean Baker was put on this Earth to do.
I think part of what allows Baker to thread the needle of both Mikey’s unsavory narcissistic avarice and his almost endearing smarm is that the vibrant auteur is unafraid to shift in a multitude of comedic registers. Sean Baker deploys offbeat humor in tremendously effective ways. If you remember those parts of The Florida Project that didn’t have you crying buckets full of tears, you might recall that it was also frequently hilarious. Baker has a sharp knack for when to make us laugh, whether it’s to help a sad insight go down a little easier or, in the case of Red Rocket, to help us spend time with a monstrously egomaniacal charlatan without wanting to climb out out our seats and our skins. And, with his unlikely high wattage leading man charging forward in a hail of sparks, Baker turns Mikey Sabre into a fascinatingly low-rent version of the kind of con man that American audiences have often taken a shine to. America is quick to forgive flim flam, usually because flim flam can be so much fun. Mikey lacks the easy charms of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting or even the more shambling underdog charisma of Christian Bale in American Hustle.
If the suavest con men act like magicians whose hands you never see move, we see every frantic gesture Mikey Sabre makes to advance his various seedy agendas. We see his ploys coming seemingly before he does. For as shifty as he certainly is, his cards are also kind of on the table if only because they keep falling out of his sleeves. If many a great huckster never lets you see them sweat, sweat is really the main and only export Mikey Sabre has to offer. He is a poorer, sadder, meaner con man for poorer, sadder meaner times and there is much more venomous critique in his story than in breezy concoctions like The Sting and the Oceans films. And yet, as pathetic as Mikey is, Baker and Simon Rex just make him an awful lot of fun to watch. What he finally has in common with cinema’s other great, and infinitely more talented con men is that he cannot help but put on a show. Less a suave light show of a man than an erratic bottle rocket that will inevitably set some poor sucker’s lawn on fire (if not multiple suckers), he nonetheless makes for fiendishly captivating viewing. And without wanting to reduce Baker’s lively American satire to pat lessons, one takeaway from Mikey may be that our country has become too undiscerning about the kinds of flim flam men we let bewilder us. Once the hangover of Mikey Sabre wears off, the moral may be that America deserves to go back to a better class of ripoff artist.
Still, Baker does not judge his characters for sometimes letting a two-bit hustler like Mikey walk over them. He understands too well how so many people like them are looking for something nice to hold onto and believe in even if that something rolls into town with nothing but bruises, a ribbed tank top and a suitcase full of red flags. Even in this decidedly acidic skewering of the American Dream (or its porn-based equivalent), Baker finds beauty in blight and commercial sprawl and industrial drabness. He finds something bold and stirring in what people do to give themselves a little bit of hope each day, whether it’s a trip down to the megamall or an afternoon watching court TV shows. He finds love and humor in the people who inhabit these spaces and he loves to pick out splashes of luminous color, wherever he can find it. He loves gaudy hues, but he sees nothing tacky in them. They are, if anything, a shout of defiance in the face of real soul-killing ugliness. It’s this approach that made The Florida Project‘s fleabag motel into its own violet-hued Magic Kingdom, and it makes Red Rocket‘s tale of small town claustrophobia and stalled dreams feel strangely transcendent. It is a film grounded in the real and with an eye toward escape. You can feel how the yellow glow of a donut shop and its frosted wares might feel like a rare and welcome sprinkle of joy ane release for someone like Mikey’s unemployed wife or the numerous refinery workers who start their mornings there. As the stars in Mikey’s eyes become ever larger with the wild prospect that Strawberry will help him make his Hollywood (read: San Fernando Valley) comeback, Baker adds more bright hues via a visit to an amusement park and the loud Madonna Inn pink paint job of Strawberry’s house. Pink. “It’s supposed to make you happy or something,” Strawberry wryly muses. I believe Baker is giving us the first overt thesis statement of his filmography, a purpose behind all the delicate pastels and thrift store Technicolor that make his films so deliciously saturated. Though I don’t think that the nature of all that bright color is as obvious as instant happiness. I don’t think Baker’s sunny color schemes are a clean antidote to the hard living inside his worlds. I don’t think Strawberry or any of the other denizens of this Texas bardo believe that either. At the same time, I also don’t think the lovely hues are meant to be dismissed as superficial or cynical in some Tim Burton kind of way, as if they were only masking hopelessness under a thin sheen. Like art, like any pleasing thing, I think the color in Baker’s universes does what it can for his characters. I think they all take the little snippets of beauty and fun in their sometimes dispiriting lives for every bit of solace it is worth. Which is to say, both a great deal and not nearly enough. The color is supposed to make you happy, which  means you try to seek happiness in whatever patch of cracked pavement it lives in. And that attitude towards life is all the more important when so much around you is gloomy and broken down.
And when you allow hard-hit characters like these to have a little hope and humor and defiance, to laugh and fight on through their troubles, you stave off rote miserablism. You can sidestep the kind of voyeuristic piteousness and punishing bleakness that is the natural hazard of the neorealist genre. It does not mean that sorrow is not sometimes a part of Sean Baker’s films, because they can absolutely knock the wind out of you when they have a mind to. But it feels humane to be with the characters, by their sides instead of watching them with concern from a clinical distance. What allows Red Rocket to work is that the people, mostly women, that Mikey Sabre tries to manipulate or placate or exploit are largely on to him. Sean Baker has created some wild and puzzling characters in his young career, but he really doesn’t do rubes. The women Mikey tries to steer toward his seedy ends do allow him to sakte by with a great deal of sexism and chicanery, but Baker’s characters are always real people with complex inner lives. It is Mikey’s failing not to recognize that. To only hear his own conceited, cocksure, motor-mouthed voice as it drowns out everything else. To pay mind to nobody but himself, narrating his great story in a never-ending stream. To never once consider that he might not be the smartest man in the room or in this small town or in the state of Texas. So the women let this delusional charlatan boast and carry on. Maybe it’s because they are good-hearted enough that they are trying to figure out, just as we are, if Mikey is deserving of love or sympathy or an honest break. Beyond better angels, maybe they also have their own uses for Mikey. Strawberry flabbergasts him when she reveals (in a brilliantly staged scene at the top of a rollercoaster) that she knows all about the porn star past that he was so craftily concealing. The cagey daughter and second-in-command to the matronly pot dealer who begrudgingly employs Mikey sees right through his cheesy patter and Eddie Haskell bullshit from the moment they meet. She lets him make money for her family, but she is also sizing this Svengali up, deciding when it will be time to cut him off at the knees. And MIkey may worm his way back into Lexi’s bed, but he gives her too little credit too. Mikey’s parallels with Donald Trump eventually mean that Baker is willing to give him a little nuance but is unwilling to let him off the hook or let his callous narcissism go unexamined. Yes, Red Rocket tells uswe Americans can be too quick to let a certain kind of self-serving parasite use and demean us. But the cinema of Sean Baker is always full of empathy and love and faith in the essential goodness of people, even if those people can sometimes make disastrously bad decisions. The residents of Sean Baker’s films are strong and fiercely intelligent and determined to survive. The effervescently generous director reminds us that the megalomania of greedy and ethicless men must surely fall in time to the patience, solidarity, and resilience of smart, resourceful women.