It’s rare to root so hard for a protagonist to fail, rarer still to so enjoy watching his unsavory endeavors, but that’s the magic that the likably louche Simon Rex brings to the role of Mikey Saber, the anti-hero at the center of Sean Baker’s portrait of unrepentant narcissism, Red Rocket. A washed-up porn star who makes his not-so-triumphant return to Texas City, Mikey is the dictionary definition of a rapscallion, a charlatan, a “suitcase pimp,” as his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), so memorably spits at him on his way out the door.
Rex, who had dropped off the mainstream radar, had short notice to slip into one of the more outré screen characters of 2021, after receiving a mid-pandemic phone call from Baker to come shoot a movie in Texas. But it feels as if Mikey is a role that only he could have played. Rex, who made his career jumping from modeling to MTV to sitcoms and spoof films, including a stint as the novelty sleaze rapper Dirt Nasty, must have been preparing his whole life to play someone like Mikey, who spouts off about his “model house” and AVN awards, and has not a single qualm about exploiting and extracting everything he can from whomever he can.
As Mikey worms his way into Lexi’s bed, before setting his sights on a new fixation, the teenaged Strawberry (Suzanna Son), Rex embodies the character with a detestable, dangerously effective charm and a loose-limbed freneticism — he never stops moving, talking, biking, eating, ogling, fucking, dancing, running and generally bullshitting his way through his brief reign of destruction. Rex’s impish energy makes Mikey as equally beguiling as he is bedeviling, a challenging feat indeed. It’s a delight to see Rex rising to the occasion in a role as complex and unforgettable as this one.
— Katie Walsh