“In 1980s Detroit, Ricky Wershe Jr. was a Street Hustler, FBI Informant and Drug Kingpin—all before he turned 16,” boasts the poster for White Boy Rick, the true-crime drama courtesy of director Yann Demange and Matthew McConaughey’s hair. Because if any actor could use a mullet for its full creative potential…
The eponymous white boy is portrayed by Richie Merritt, a newcomer to the screen. Merritt is a high school student, unlike Ricky, who has dropped out of school to help his dad, Ricky Wershe Sr. (McConaughey), sell firearms.
We first see the pair at a gun show. And Ricky Jr. knows how to spot a hustler. The father and son turn the tables on a man selling Egyptian AK-47 assault rifles as Russian ones, taking them for a steal and later flipping them at 10 times the price. They get away with this con thanks to the custom-fitted silencers Papa Ricky carves in the basement. Although, these manufactured parts get him into hot water with the feds.
Through this dynamic, Rick finds himself in the middle of warring forces: his new drug-dealing friends, the FBI trying to nab the dealers, and his father, who is just trying to earn enough money to open up a video rental store (if only he knew the future!).
White Boy Rick gets some mileage out of this premise, but it never fully sells its sympathies. First-timer Merritt pulls off some surprisingly powerful understatement while also embodying with nonchalance his character’s knowledge of the criminal environment.
Of course, this knowledge only extends so far, and this is the fall of our tragic hero. We are asked to sympathize with Rick, particularly as the story arcs over the peak of its rags-to-riches-to-rags parabola, but Rick’s errors are clearly his own. We see him play both sides of the law, and the choices he makes not only implicates himself in multiple crimes but also directly hurts other people. These people may be doing the same amount of criminal activity as Rick, but we are not asked to sympathize with them.
It isn’t a complex narrative, as a result. It has many moving parts, no doubt about it. But—McConaughey can squeeze tears out of a pinched face all he wants—the emotional appeals are superficial.
This is without mentioning the film’s conventionality. White Boy Rick may boast an intriguing story with high concept potential, but it reads derivative. There isn’t much care taken to craft a unique world around this real-world figure. The cast list, similarly, reads myopic, in that there is less depth in characterization as you move down. Sure, the immediate world of the Wershe family has some character to it. But move beyond the two kiddie-corner households that they occupy and the world flattens.
This lack of care is evident in the scripting. Most side characters speak in trite generalities like “If you ain’t on the take, you get your ass took” and “You’re only as good as your word.” The prior is said by R.J. Cyler, who is meant to portray Rick’s best friend, but you’d be hard pressed to find proof of that in the script given Cyler’s screentime. The latter is said by Eddie Marsan, who is a baffling addition to the cast and has a baffling amount of screentime given his connection to the already limited world is indecipherable.
Brian Tyree Henry is also in the film. He’s a powder keg every moment he is on screen and is utterly wasted. Jennifer Jason Lee is in the film. She speaks slippery FBI jargon and is utterly wasted. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are in the film. It seems in one moment that Dern is actively trying to leave the set, and McConaughey has to pull him back into frame. I wouldn’t blame him; he’s utterly wasted.
White Boy Rick comes off as a derivative true crime film that has been filled to the brim with acting talent to hide the fact that the characters have no character to them. There isn’t enough heart in the script to convince us to root for Ricky, as impressive as Merritt’s debut is. By the end of it, it becomes clear that, as presented, there isn’t anything to take away from Rick’s experience. Aside from the very important reminder that thick gold chains and mullets are rough style choices.
White Boy Rick: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)