'White Boy Rick' film review: McConaughey steals this '80s drug underworld drama
The frustration of the true crime drama "White Boy Rick" (opens in theaters Sept. 14) is not with its stellar ensemble cast - the film squanders fine performances on a wandering story of a teen criminal.
In short: Based on the true story of Detroit-area teenager street hustler, FBI informant and drug kingpin Richard Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt). Also stars Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
To put into some perspective the scale of talent in this film, the supporting cast includes several Academy Award nominees: Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie and Jennifer Jason Leigh - not to mention actors nominated for other prestigious awards (Bel Powley, Eddie Marsan, RJ Cyler and Brian Tyree Henry). To be clear: each of these actors excel in their roles -- however, this script doesn't give these performers much to work with, leaving these great actors to work with meager roles.
Dern is an angry grandfather. Laurie is a doting grandmother. Leigh is the good cop. Henry is the hard-nosed cop. Marsan is a Miami-connected crime contact. Cyler is Rick's best friend(?). It's not exaggeration to say these characters have next to no depth - they are paper-thin roles that merely nudge the plot forward from scene to scene. If the strength of "White Boy Rick" is its ensemble cast, then it's in spite of the shallow script that reduces many of its characters to near caricatures.
Richie Merritt is perfectly cast as the confident if immature titular character - but of course McConaughey steals the movie with his turn as Rick's fast-talking, low-life gun dealing father. The film's architecture is theoretically about Richard Wershe Jr's arc from high school dropout to criminal kingpin, but it's his father's story that is infused with anything approximating pathos and tragedy. A re-edit of this film would focus on Wershe Sr's hopes and failings as a father and make the film about him. "White Boy Rick" only has dramatic depth when it wades into the father-son relationship between young Rick and his loser father with a dream of owning a video store. Merritt solidly sells himself as a cocky up-and-coming criminal - but McConaughey is the heart of this film.
That said, the film we're left with is the story of young Rick's journey from dropout to kingpin - which really should be more compelling than the story as presented. The problem with "White Boy Rick" is the overall goal of the titular character isn't clear - his actions are simply in response to a couple plot points. His aspirations are super vague and his motivations -- moments that apparently compel his actions for the rest of the film -- are only briefly touched upon and exist mainly in the background. Relegating the very reason Rick enters the drug trade or cooperates with the FBI to the background robs the film of character tension and weakens character dynamics. The end product is just a "and then" movie based on real events -- "Rick meets some criminals and then he works with the FBI and then he does some criminal stuff and then he sells drugs and then" blah blah blah.
The cumulative effect of just glossing over critical plot points is a film that never develops plot points. At one point, Rick is compared to Al Capone - but the film doesn't justify that comparison or make a case that the comparison itself is unjustified. Rick's time as an alleged "kingpin" is summed up in hasty montage, where he wears gaudy jewelry and has stacks of money. His influence is never specified - the movie is satisfied in summing up his kingpin phase with a frustratingly vague montage. An entire b-plot involves Rick's sister and her full-blown addiction -- a painful event for Rick and his father. That said, the film makes zero attempt to connect his sister's crippling drug addiction with Rick's own venture in drug dealing. The audience is supposed to believe Rick is selling drugs to help his family - but drugs have destroyed his sister's life ... and the film neglects that conflict.
Because this film is based on a true story, well, the film had to end in a very specific way. "White Boy Rick" makes a halfhearted attempt to deliver a commentary about the criminal justice system based on what happened to Rick in real life -- but its message doesn't have the impact it probably should. The minimum amount of groundwork is laid to justify the film's commentary on mandatory minimum prison sentences - but given the lazy effort, the ending commentary is a bit of a misfire.
Final verdict: A great ensemble cast effort is lost on this muddled true crime story. “White Boy Rick” bills itself as an unbelievable tale of a kid informant and drug kingpin, but this lackluster crime drama goes through the motions of other better informant or drug kingpin stories.
"White Boy Rick" has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity.