About fifteen minutes into White Boy Rick the titular character asks his father (Matthew McConaughey) what a metaphor is. This leads McConaughey to not only explain to his son the meaning of the word, but to also only speak in metaphors for the good remainder of the film. Yann Demange’s sophomore film is so full of cliché life lessons and sayings it is a surprise that this is a film about drug dealers and not a college orientation seminar. White Boy Rick is an unusual true story that avoids the interesting and instead goes for a tasteless retelling leaving behind zero empathy.
The story of Richard Wershe Jr. is made for moviegoing audience. The ingredients are all there, drugs money and power and the rise to have the good old fashioned American dream. Rick Jr. became an FBI informant at the age of 14 only to find himself serving a lifetime prison sentence by the age of 17 for cocaine possession while the FBI turned their back against him. The setup is made for anyone out there who ever put up a ‘Scarface’ poster on their wall. Unlike Tony Montana or any of the other rags to riches criminals audiences love, Rick Jr. himself is bland due to the performance of newcomer Richie Merritt. While Merritt finds small moments to shine there are too many scenes where he sits back letting others take charge when he should be dominating the screen. Rick Jr. is set up to have us feeling for him during his struggles, but Merritt can never find a way to truly grasp any response which makes it easier for the audience to turn their backs against him.
McConaughey had his renaissance, and while he continues to prove himself, this thankless role will not be one to hold onto. Perhaps it’s the script written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller (three people with very different voices) but McConaughey as Rick Sr. never seems to know how to play this poor and broken father who for some reason still accepts his kids offer to start a drug operation. The film seems to be going for a father-son story but that is hard to accept especially when Rick Sr. finds out that his son has been tagged by the FBI to be an informant, sort of gets mad, and then never discusses it again. When all things fall apart, and Rick Sr. is given an opportunity to reach out to his son the moment just feels stale.
As Rick Jr.’s story unfolds it becomes clear that Demange is leaving a lot to the imagination. The story plays out like a Wikipedia page giving us brief facts instead of fully fleshed information. It is 1987 Detroit and Rick Jr. lives with his father Rick Sr., a gun dealer and his sister Dawn (Bel Powley owning every scene given) ). Rick Sr. wants to sell enough that he can take his kids away from these harden streets while Rick Jr. knows they can be bigger and finds himself working for a local dealer (Jonathan Majors) When Rick Sr. refuses to be an informant for two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason leigh and Rory Cochrane) Rick Jr. agrees to help them on terms that they leave his father alone and eventually finds himself assisting the agents and one narcotics officer (Brian Tyree Henry who continues to leave enjoyable performances no matter where he goes).
When things go south with the FBI and Rick sees an opportunity to help him and his father rise he seizes the chance. It is at this moment the film jumps ahead three years giving us a new and successful Rick, but it also forgets to take the audience along for the ride. Gangster movies all always full of moments that make even the purest question whether or not they would join the criminal life with all its shiny perks. Think of the walk through restaurant scene in ‘Goodfellas’ or the wedding montage in ‘Scarface’ these fun moments are never truly featured and while Rick looks like he is having a ball its never good to leave your audience behind.
Demange unfortunately meets the sophomore slump. His debut with 2014’s “’71” is an intense war thriller with dark political undertones. The film garnered him success that followed throughout festival season and allowed his name to be tossed around for the upcoming ‘James Bond’ movie (something he should still be considered for). The skills learned on “’71” are not all forgotten, as Demange still knows how to shoot the hell out of nighttime scenes from coarse lighting to perfect tension building as Rick walks through his dangerous Detroit streets. Demange also appears to have a great taste for 80’s dance music giving us tracks from Vaugh Mason and Crew, George Clinton, and Mtume all used in small but enjoyable scenes from a roller rink to a wedding dance floor. Enjoyment however does not last as we reach a conclusion that feels both unresponsive and incomplete. Rick Jr’s downfall only feels like half the story since throughout the 110 minutes there are sprinkled ideas of police corruption, poverty and white privilege. White Boy Rick does have an ending, but its epilogue title cards revealing Rick’s fate make it clear there was a bigger and more thoughtful film to be made.
White Boy Rick
Director: Yann Demange
Rated: R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references and brief nudity