Film review: “White Boy Rick” (2018) 

“White Boy Rick” (2018) 


Running Time: 111 minutes

Written by: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller & Noah Miller

Directed by: Yann Demange

Featuring: Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie 

Richard Wershe Sr.:“When I first saw you I knew you were going to be bigger than me.”

The latest movie starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey opens soon, a drama centered around organised crime as well as the crack epidemic of the 1980s, named after the main characters nickname, “White Boy Rick” (2018). This is based on a true story that as it is adapted, is uneven at best, with a narrative that could best be described as riffing on other similarly themed movies of which there are a number. If a decision is made to make a movie based around one person and their story, that leads an audience through a journey which is basically about the selling of drugs as well as being about a group of people that it is extremely difficult to feel any real emotions for then that is going to be a very tough sell.

The best version of this movie is Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) that had at its core one very violent person, who we follow for the entire film, to mitigate that violence it injects an element of humour as well as realism although everything is heightened which works well, not only that but the movie has not dated at all in almost thirty years. Unfortunately the same thing cannot be said for “White Boy Rick” that has at its centre a character, Rick, who is not sympathetic in the slightest, not only that it makes the point that this subjective narrative is completely from Ricks point of view with no room for any other kind of perspective. What this means is that at times it appears that the director and writer would like you to think that what Rick chose to do, sell drugs, and the punishment he ultimately received was not only outside of his control but was motivated politically which may be correct but is completely unprovable. In saying that there is still a story to be enjoyed here but for me it comes from some of the set design, as well as the truly great cast that has been assembled to support the main character who just seems to be cruising through this movie not doing a whole lot of actual acting, which for him is a missed opportunity.

This movie is based on the autobiography “White Boy Rick: My Time as an Undercover Teenage Drug Informant for the FBI” by Richard Wershe Jr. and has been adapted by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller & Noah Miller which may explain why the movie follows the narrative it does as none of these writers really have the experience or track record to elevate this movie above nothing more than a curiosity to see another great Matthew McConaughey performance. The movie directed by Yann Demange whose best and most notable work has been in English television as well as the very good film “’71” (2014), here he struggles putting anything meaningful together with a script that meanders all over the place not really finding a rhythm as well as pandering to the main subject which is a real dent in the movie itself. 

“White Boy Rick” is set in 1980s Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, it is based on the true story of a blue-collar father and his teenage son, Rick Wershe Jr., who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

This movie lives and dies in the performance of the main actor, which may explain why it seems uneven in that, the lead, Richie Merritt has no previous screen experience whatsoever, for me that is unforgivable and it shows all the way through the film, it is one of the reasons that this movie really falls on its face. I do not understand why a seasoned actor who had some experience and could build a performance was not chosen as there are plenty of people I would have thought would jump at the chance. As usual Matthew McConaughey does what he does best, playing a character originally and is fully invested in it, which is exactly what you expect from him in this stage of his career. However for me the performance of the film is Bel Powley who has shown over the past few years that she is an excellent actor no matter the part, here she is no different, having to play someone who is three dimensional as well as someone who has very human weaknesses. As for the rest of the cast, which is made up of both veterans as well as newcomers such as Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane and Brain Tyree Henry all do their best, again they are let down with the material but all know what they are in and so adjust their performances accordingly.

It is hard to know how this movie was given the go ahead, although I do understand how people would have invested their money in it as it could have been sold on the name of McConaughey alone, as he has over the past ten years built up clout at both the domestic as well as the international box office. Not only that but the supporting cast is incredible and there are some high profile producers behind it. That is why it is difficult to adjust to a movie that is a period piece that is so bland as well as formulaic to a point. There needed to be some more stories involving others independent of the main character, as there is very little context to make sense of what is actually going on in a wider sense. Sure there are some hints to the White House but they are not fully explored, not only that but actual motivations of the main characters are a little thin so it is all broad strokes. Once again to compare it to “Goodfellas” we had a true sense of who all those characters were as well as why they were committing crime, we also had a sense of place, time and the extreme danger that Henry Hill was in, with this movie we do not.

This is a movie that I would not recommend be seen on the big screen, save your money and go and see a good drama that actually means something in human terms. “White Boy Rick” isn’t a cautionary tale for people wanting to pursue a criminal lifestyle, it is more of a cautionary take for people who maybe looking at making a movie with a lead who has no business being there. If you get a chance it might be a good movie to catch on a streaming service but that’s about it.

“White Boy Rick” is released in New Zealand cinemas in 2019.

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