White Boy Rick
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
In 1988, seventeen year-old Rick Wershe Jr. was sentenced to life in a Michigan prison for selling cocaine. White Boy Rick tells his tale from when he first got into the drug game all the way up to his arrest. There is a lot to his life, so it is pretty amazing the movie about him is so incredibly boring. The script is biopic paint-by-numbers. For a story so closely connected to its city, it has absolutely no sense of location. With the exception of a couple of names, this could be taking place almost anywhere (most of it was filmed in Cleveland). This is one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
As White Boy Rick starts, the title character is fourteen and living in Detroit with his poor, gun dealer father and drug-addict sister. After he becomes friends with some local criminals, the FBI sees an opportunity to turn him into an informant by threatening to lock his father away. This changes his family’s lives and sets him on the course that got him his own movie.
The filmmakers seem to want viewers to feel sympathy for their protagonist. After all, he was just a kid trying to survive. But he has been written in such a flat, unengaging, way that I was unable to feel anything for him. The character is too thin to work as intended. Since he has no depth, it became difficult for me to believe he did not know exactly what he was doing. He comes off as a naïve child who failed to understand there are consequences for his actions. This is an inherently intriguing story made with the passion of a disinterested kid giving a book report.
While the filmmakers cast a newcomer as Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt, struggling to make much of a dull part), they surround him with some good actors who have nothing interesting to do. Matthew McConaughey is stuck with the role of the worried dad. I kept expecting him to give a powerful speech or really do anything at all. How you hire Matthew McConaughey, an actor of immense charm and charisma, and then use him like any other actor is beyond me. All he is allowed to bring to White Boy Rick is his name value, as his talent is completely wasted.
As the law enforcement officers who take advantage of Rick, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane and Brian Tyree Henry are mere plot devices. They come in, tell Rick what’s up, then go off to smoke cigarettes or drink coffee or ask their agent to look for a better project or whatever. Henry especially deserves more. While the other two get a couple of very mild showcase scenes, he gets nada. Henry has been so good in a nuanced role as rapper Paper Boi on FX’s brilliant Atlanta that it is a real shame White Boy Rick does not make better use of him. His character is so pointless that, when he reappeared at the end, I had totally forgotten he was even in this movie.
The pace is way slower than normal for this kind of story and, due to this, the timing seems slightly off in nearly every scene. Supposedly big moments consistently fail to connect. There is no urgency to the drama. White Boy Rick (105 minutes, minus the end credits) is a rote retelling of the most important time in Rick’s life. It follows the template of something like Goodfellas without any of that classic’s insight or quality writing. September has the reputation for being a month where studios dump the movies they did not consider commercially interesting enough to survive in the summer or good enough to succeed in the upcoming holiday season. Whether true or not, White Boy Rick definitely fits that description.
1½ out of 5
Richie Merritt as Rick Wershe Jr.
Matthew McConaughey as Richard Wershe Sr.
Bel Powley as Dawn Wershe
Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI Agent Snyder
Rory Cochrane as FBI Agent Byrd
Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Jackson
RJ Cyler as Rudell ‘Boo’ Curry
Jonathan Majors as Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry
Directed by Yann Demange
Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller