Matthew McConaughey has had an interesting career since winning and Academy Award in 2014. The last 5 years have seen him largely become the best part about mediocre movies. From ‘Gold’ to ‘Free State of Jones’ to even ‘Interstellar’, McConaughey can always be counted on to deliver a solid performance. It’s just a shame he can’t find a truly great film to house his undeniable charisma.
‘White Boy Rick’ hopes to be the film to change that narrative. It’s based on a compelling true story of crime, corruption and family. It boasts a mostly incredible cast. It’s directed by a BAFTA nominated up and comer. However, the results remain typical for a late 2010’s McConaughey movie. He’s good, quite good in fact. But the rest of the film is a largely forgettable, formulaic crime story.
‘White Boy Rick’ lets you know from almost the first frame that this is a Detroit story. Early scenes feature Rick Wershe Sr. (McConaughey) explaining to his son why they will never leave their city. McConaughey conveys his true belief that the city will rebound and thrive, and so will their family. The fall of Detroit has been understandably heartbreaking for many of its residents, but there is a strange cinematic beauty to the motor city. Abandoned streets and decaying building of a metropolis that time forgot make a perfect backdrop to both the Wershe family’s struggle and Hustle.
That hustle is initially firearms. The titular Rick, played by newcomer Richie Merritt, and his father go to local gun shows and find dealers looking to scam potential buyers. Through knowledge and American ingenuity, the Wershe men manage to scam the scammers. In turn they look to re-sell the guns to local gangs as the only business booming in Detroit in 1984 was drugs and violent crime.
One gang he sells to his ran by Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors). Ricky befriends Curry’s younger brother “Boo” Curry and becomes a member of their crew. Boo is played by RJ Cyler of ‘Me, Earl & The Dying Girl’ fame and has some fun scenes early on in the film depicting what adolescent indiscretions might look like for teenagers in a gang. White Boy Rick as Wershe Jr. becomes known is also picked up by FBI and Detroit Police around this time and offered an opportunity to become a confidential informant. Ricky does so begrudgingly as an attempt to help save his family from being the target of federal investigations. The FBI agents are played by Rory Cochrane and the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh. They both do a great job of portraying G-men who aren’t exactly any better than the criminals they’re trying to stop.
Brian Tyree Henry from ‘Atlanta’ also plays a Detroit Narcotics detective. Henry is slated to have a big fall with ‘Widows, ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ & ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’. ‘White Boy Rick’ won’t be part of that big fall. Not because he isn’t excellent; he is. However, like most of this really amazing cast, he just isn’t given enough to do.
Director Yann Demange and his screenwriter’s do a good job of setting up the world of the film. They also hit on some interesting themes. I appreciate how Detroit’s history of local corruption is clearly in the film, but the filmmaker’s don’t over-explain it to the audience.
The major problem of ‘White Boy Rick’ is that it loses steam when anyone who’s not Matthew McConaughey is on the screen. Not because the supporting case is not all talented. This movie has Bruce Dern for crying out loud. It’s because the story they’re telling is so rote it feels mechanical. Almost everyone is reduced largely a stereotype because no actor is given enough time to flesh out their character. Lead actor Richie Merritt is obviously given the most screen time. Although it becomes clear at a certain point that he cannot carry the film. He’s serviceable early on when the story is light and humorous. Whenever he is asked to deliver in a scene with more emotional weight though, he stumbles.
The narrative structure of ‘White Boy Rick’ is also confounding at points. For a movie under two hours, it’s amazing that this feels ten minutes too long. It would appear based on the title that this would be a film primarily about Rick Wershe Jr. and his accent to crack kingpin in 1980’s Detroit. Yet the film never lets itself go long without reminding us Matthew McConaughey is close by. This feels odd as his character makes it incredibly clear for most of the film how much he doesn’t want to be involved with the drug business. The decision to feature him so heavily is what makes the mildly enjoyable. It’s also a decision that holds it back from being more that simply “okay”.
‘White Boy Rick’ can’t seem to make up its mind as to the film it wants to be. The story should ostensibly be about the younger Wershe and his criminal. However McConaughey is never gone for long enough to let the movies become Merritt’s. The end result is a paint by numbers drug film that we’ve all seen before with a lot of solid performances by actors you know can give so much more. Your enjoyment of ‘White Boy Rick’ can largely be attributed to your enjoyment of its genre. If you liked 2016’s ‘Black Mass’ you’ll enjoy this. If you’re expecting the Scorsese-style excitement promised to you by the trailer, you will probably be disappointed.