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"WHITE BOY RICK"
(2018) (Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: In 1980s Detroit, a teenager goes from being a low-level street hustler to an FBI informant to a drug kingpin all before he can legally drink and vote.
PLOT:
Richard "Rick" Wershe Jr. (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY) is an optimistic, single father trying to raise a delinquent teenage son, Ricky (RICHIE MERRITT), and a drug-addicted teenage daughter, Dawn (BEL POWLEY) in 1980s Detroit. His dream is to open a video-rental store, which he hopes to finance by illegally selling guns that he's modified himself, and support his kids and ailing parents, Ray (BRUCE DERN) and Verna (PIPER LAURIE).

Ricky, though, has more of the entrepreneurial flair and street-level connections. He makes the first arms deal with local drug lord Johnny "Lil Man" Curry (JONATHAN MAJORS). Soon, he is welcomed into Johnny's inner circle where he makes friends with another teenage boy named Boo (RJ CYLER) and becomes attracted to Johnny's new wife, Cathy (TAYLOUR PAIGE).

But because of his father's ineptitude as an arms dealer, Ricky becomes an easy target for FBI agents Snyder (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) and Byrd (RORY COCHRANE) to flip and turn informant. Detroit Police Detective Jackson (BRIAN TYREE HENRY) also gets involved and sets Ricky up to become a rising drug dealer. Ricky finds that he's good at it and can support his family in a way he once only dreamed. But he soon becomes part of a plot to ensnare Detroit's mayor for his connections to Johnny and his crime ring, and things start to unravel.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
The 1980s were certainly fun for some folks. I had a good time, immersing myself in the music, movies, TV shows, and pop culture of the era. I was the same age as the title character in "White Boy Rick." And when I say "character," I mean the very real person who was Ricky Wershe, who between 1984 and 1987 went from being a low-level street hustler to an FBI informant to a drug kingpin all before he could legally drink and vote. When times were good for Ricky, they were very good. He was certainly getting paid in full.

In the film he lives in crime-ridden, inner-city Detroit. His father, Rick (Matthew McConaughey), has dreams of being a video store owner and funding that dream with illegal gun sales. His mother abandoned them years earlier, and his teenage sister, Dawn (Bel Powley), is a drug addict who runs away from home to be with her deadbeat boyfriend. But at least Ricky has gold chains and Run-DMC playing on the boom box!

He also indeed has the feds breathing down his neck, using his father's inept gun running as leverage to get him to participate in controlled drug buys and get the goods on local crime lord Johnny (Jonathan Majors), who's engaged to the niece of Detroit's suspected crooked mayor. This all leads to Ricky becoming a drug dealer for real, once he gets the hang of the business, and has him making more money than his father ever dreamed.

"White Boy Rick" is at its best when it is focused on Ricky and his family, which also includes bickering grandparents played by screen vets Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie who together look to be a combined 225 years old. Daddy Rick has dreams of being a player and spouts enough motivational gibberish to convince Ricky for a while his old man knows what he's talking about. But when it comes down to it, Rick's best moves are to sell handguns to suburban housewives out of the trunk of his car. Even after his son gets in deep and Johnny puts out a hit on the boy, Rick sits outside of Johnny's pad with a loaded handgun. But he doesn't have the stones to open the car door and go shoot up the crime boss' stronghold.

Ricky, on the other hand, is supposed to be this guy who goes from a green kid making his first street deal with Johnny to a valued member of the man's crew to one of the top dealers on the street. He's played by Richie Merritt, who's making his screen debut here, and the young man just isn't up to carrying a film. I believed his sincerity in wanting to make real and only seeing drugs as the way to do it. But once Ricky decides to be a criminal himself and not an FBI pawn, the film then becomes sloppy and rushed and jumps ahead in the story to find him established with street cred and a hard nose for the drug biz.

But the film and the performance are just not convincing. The problem is director Yann Demange is making a film here in which Ricky is the sympathetic main character, and he never gets called to task for his greed, his unforced criminal activity, and his complete lack of conscience in stringing out other people on cocaine after enduring years with his sister as an addict. It's more an anti-FBI film, calling the Bureau and the Detroit PD with transforming Ricky into the monster he became and then washing their hands of him when he played ball with them and got the goods on the bad people they'd been hunting for years.

This is all really too complex for a two-hour movie. "White Boy Rick" really needed to be an eight- or 10-episode series on HBO or Netflix to be as detailed and absorbing as this movie was in its first hour. The overall story here is too rushed. Some potentially great characters get marginalized. And the whole thing feels a little too safe in spots for my tastes. Rarely are we made to feel any sense of real risk or danger for Ricky as he goes about setting up Johnny's crew. And we're never invited into his inner psyche to see if he had any misgivings or any sense of guilt over his actions.

And that's too bad. Because most of the cast came to play here, especially McConaughey stepping back into a supporting role and giving a fine, nuanced performance of a failed father and husband who's still clinging to good ol' American optimism that it was morning in America and things were going to get better. Powley, meanwhile, is quite impressive as his crack-addicted daughter. And I bet the other talented cast members would also have scored bigger and better in their roles if they just had more screen time to flesh them out.

The real-life story is certainly one to research and read up on online. So, the film also does its job in getting you to show interest in Ricky's tragic case. But I wanted to be more than interested. I wanted to be moved, compelled, even angered. I just wasn't. This scores no better than a 4.5 out of 10 (T. Durgin).




Reviewed September 10, 2018 / Posted September 14, 2018


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