White Boy Rick flutters over its lengthy source material unfocused, with a grade A performance from Matthew McConaughey and an intriguing debut from Richie Merritt propping it up. While the film bares no glaring flaws, it’s failure to ever elevate itself is what inevitably makes it forgettable.
It’s 1980s Detroit and Richard Wershe Sr., a firearms salesman, has been flagged down by the FBI for manufacturing and selling silencers (unlicensed) which were then used to kill people. In order to keep his father out of trouble, Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe Jr. becomes an undercover informant for the FBI only to later use what he learned while undercover to become the next king pin of Detroit.
Richie Merritt has no prior acting experience and yet here he is, playing the lead in a Hollywood movie starring the great Matthew McConaughey. And yet, it is in his lack of refinement that Merritt brings a certain level of authenticity to the role of White Boy Rick; a kid who grew up in the glam light of stardom might not have been able to imitate the street-smart nuance of the role as well as Merritt did. While his performance won’t win him any awards, the role fit Merritt quite nicely. And did I mention Matthew McConaughey was great? Because, while this wasn’t his most ambitious role nor was it too far from other stuff we’ve seen him in, he does exactly what the doctor ordered and then some in the tragic part of Richard Wershe Sr. Understandably, his screen time is more limited in this one as he is not the focus of the movie, but I still would’ve liked to see more of him. Bel Powley also puts in strong work as White Boy Rick’s sister Dawn, struggling with drug addiction.
However, no matter how daring the performances, White Boy Rick tries to tackle too much material and bites more than it can chew. We are introduced and taken along this kid’s journey into fame, and while there is entertainment to be had from watching his fate unfold, there are too many characters and plot points thrown around to keep track. Several story arcs are introduced but never receive proper development for us to become emotionally involved in them. While some scenes in White Boy Rick can be emotionally tough, most of the film fails to connect to its audience. This is what causes the experience of watching White Boy Rick to be a shallow one we will most likely forget. What the movie is able to accomplish, is shine its characters, many of them criminals (drug dealers etc.), in a sympathetic light. In the end, it’s the FBI and Detroit justice system you’re angry at. White Boy Rick approaches the line of glamorizing the 80s criminal lifestyle but never crosses it, quickly reverting back to the grimmer and more dangerous side that accompanies it.
White Boy Rick is a fine film, but it is also unfocused and lacks reason for watching it more than once; this isn’t something you need to see in theaters, but there are worse renting/streaming options. 6.5/10