The Pitch: In 1984, when Richard Wershe Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt) was just 14 years old, he was already helping his father Rick (Matthew McConaughey) run a prosperous, pseudo-legal, under-the-table gun business out of their Detroit home. By the time 1987 rolled around, the younger Richard would become “White Boy Rick,” a notorious drug dealer allegedly underwritten by the FBI as part of a sting operation. Shortly thereafter, he’d also wind up a federal informant, and after that, a convicted felon with a life sentence. But once again, before all of that began, he was a young teenage boy finding himself in a hostile, ever-changing environment. This is his story. Sort of.
“I’m White Boy Rick!”: White Boy Rick never entirely settles on exactly what kind of film it’s attempting to be, and if this occasionally lends it a sense of freewheeling unpredictability, it far more often muddles the film’s central story, which at least most of the time is one about an uncertain kid with an unstable family coming of age in a part of Detroit in which he never truly belongs. The scenes that allow Merritt to draw out Rick’s uncertainty and relative youth are some of the film’s best, particularly those he shares with Bel Powley as Rick’s strung-out younger sister Dawn. In those moments, and a handful between White Boy Rick and some of his age-comparable friends in the Detroit crime empire he eventually ambles into, Merritt gets to draw the young man out as an actual person, rather than the walking bullet points of his own story. Too often, however, the film itself gets mired in that territory, substituting White Boy Rick the actual person with an inner life for White Boy Rick, the teenage crime lord whose life made for an impossibly perfect elevator pitch.
A Detroit Story: One of the biggest consequences of White Boy Rick‘s tonal inconsistency is that none of its intriguing ideas are ever given the proper chance to establish themselves as a motif. The film jumps from doe-eyed coming-of-age tropes to hard-nosed crime drama to undercover cop theatrics to its occasional fits of David O. Russell-influenced comic anarchy so gracelessly that none of them ever take hold in a lasting way. Director Yann Demange has a definite eye for the finite details (albeit one over-reliant on the urban downturn fetishism that plagues so many American films about Detroit), but that eye winds up fogged by the film’s attempts to be everything for every target audience at once.
It doesn’t help that some of those aspects are far more dramatically effective than others. Demange brings a bit of verve to White Boy Rick’s rise (where most of the film’s best work resides), and it’s in charting his uncertain growth in confidence against the alternately paternal and suspicious local boss Johnny (Jonathan Majors) that White Boy Rick finds at least temporary footing in its transposition of crime movie tropes about “growth” to a more literal take on that story. Merritt’s rapport with McConaughey does a great deal of the groundwork in this respect as well; as a father who knows his family is falling apart and knows he can do little but stand bemusedly and try to right the ship, McConaughey comes the closest to establishing Rick as a character of some depth. However, as the film rambles on (this is an especially long-feeling two-hour film), a great deal of plot comes and goes, but too little of it leaves a lasting impression.
The Verdict: White Boy Rick is a collection of interesting enough scenes in desperate need of a more cohesive framework. There are a handful of enjoyably eccentric vignettes strewn throughout (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Tyree Henry roping Rick into dealing over a burger and fries, Powley and Merritt’s strange rapport, a cameo from Danny Brown as a fellow hustler who talks a little too much), but by its second hour, too much of the film begins to resemble any interchangeable pile of crime stories about a felon at their heights being humbled by the law and by their own sins. As those go, White Boy Rick isn’t unusual often enough to stand apart, or nakedly emotional enough to push through its increasing reliance on tired genre standards (tearful phone calls through prison windows, et al.)
The film picks up and discards stories by the scene, whether it’s Rick’s would-be courtship with Johnny’s wife or the loving acrimony between the elder Rick and his parents. (It should be a federal crime to cast Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as a long-married couple, and give them virtually nothing to do.) There’s just enough to laud in White Boy Rick that its shortcomings are all the more unfortunate, and for a true story so wild as this one, competent is a pretty disappointing place to land.