White Boy Rick might be based on truth, but that doesn't make it a story

By Leigh Monson
   When you've been writing critically about films as long as I have, you start to notice certain things about the way that movies are marketed. Take, for instance, the trailer for White Boy Rick. This was a very slick, kinetic trailer, probably one of the best-cut trailers of 2018, and it showed in front of practically every film leading up to White Boy Rick's release, meaning the studio was trying to get people very interested. But it also showed off a lot about the film's plot, and a lot of that technical flourish was clearly added for the purpose of making the trailer's editing extra flashy, so the film was probably not going to be as fast-paced as the marketing would have you believe. In short, my reaction was that this was an excellent trailer for what would likely turn out to be a very mediocre film, and White Boy Rick proved that supposition 100% accurate.
   The film follows the exploits of Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and Ricky Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a father and son living in Detroit during the 1980s. Rick works as a licensed gun dealer with designs on opening his own video store, while the teenage Ricky finds himself involved with the local gangs by selling some of his father's guns under the table. The FBI picks the younger Wershe up for these side activities and convinces him to do controlled drug buys so that the government can track where the drugs are coming from. Over the course of a couple years, Ricky becomes a more prominent figure in the drug community, while his father has conflicted feelings about what that elevated status does for their standard of living.
   Now, in all those events described above, one might wonder what exactly is the story being told here. Is this a rags-to-riches story about a young gangster wannabe in over his head? Is this about the conflict between a father who wants his son on the right side of the law and a son who just wants to do right by his family? Is this about the moral quandary of dealing in drugs when one's family members have a history of drug abuse? Is this about any other number of angles that these events could use to illuminate the inner lives of these characters or broader context in which they exist? The film doesn't seem to know how to answer any of those questions, instead taking the scattershot approach of laying out dramatized versions of real events without deciding on a thesis for those events to feed into. The film functions as little more than a chronological telling of Ricky Wershe's admittedly interesting history, but it doesn't make a point of demonstrating any insight as to why that story is interesting. Instead, the film just limply transitions between scenes until culminating in a title card that pretends at tying the film's events into a substantive point that ninety percent of the film doesn't come close to addressing.
   And this is a shame, because individual elements of White Boy Rick work well in isolation. The city of Detroit is shot with a sense of dilapidated desperation, making Ricky's gravitational pull toward gang life seem natural. McConaughey is doing his blue collar shtick to his usual level of acclaim-worthy prestige, and Merritt is a surprisingly nuanced newcomer for never having played the lead in a film before. No other character quite lives up to the modestly explored depths of Rick and Ricky, though, leaving these character studies feeling like rafts adrift in an ocean of tedium.
   White Boy Rick isn't a terrible film, but it's a largely pointless one. You won't walk away feeling like you learned anything about these characters, the world they live in, or the consequences these true events have for the world we know now. There isn't a lot to actively decry here, but with nothing much to praise or even to think on after it's over, White Boy Rick feels like a waste of time.

2.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.