It’s almost never fruitful to speculate on what film scholars of the future will make of our cinematic landscape, but when they’re assigning an end date to the McConaughsance, it may well be White Boy Rick. This is not to say that star Matthew McConaughey is bad in the film, but that the film is bad around him. With White Boy Rick, director Yann Demange has crafted a period crime melodrama utterly lacking in the stylistic sensibilities that characterize that subgenre, and a team of largely inexperienced screenwriters take what could’ve been an interesting based-on-a-true-story premise and drain it of all narrative verve. But then, what do you expect when one of your writers can list several episodes of MTV’s Punk’d on his resume? I didn’t know that junk even had screenwriters.
The script is indeed problematic, with an inexplicable act structure and one of the most truncated endings I’ve come across in some time. While its basis, the story of 15-year-old Detroit gun runner turned drug dealer and FBI informant Rick Wershe Jr.’s (Richie Merritt) dramatic rise and precipitous fall, could have provided a compelling narrative in the vein of Goodfellas or Blow, the film instead plays more along the lines of last year’s egregiously disappointing American Made. Writers Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller strip their narrative of its inherent dramatic tension, railroading their protagonist toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion — and they come up short of sticking the landing. Even the family dynamics intended to provide the emotional spine of their story fall flat by dint of turgid pacing and deficient character development, creating a morass of incompetence that McConaughey’s performance as Wershe Sr., solid as it is, can’t quite elevate on its own.
But McConaughey’s not the only actor in this film, so perhaps it’s unfair to single him out. Jennifer Jason Leigh is predictably on point as the shifty FBI agent that flips young Rick, but she only has a handful of scenes, and none of them give her much to chew on. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are practically begging to be far more than the cursory background roles their parts as Rick’s grandparents afford them, but Demange misses this opportunity as well. Eddie Marsan exudes an admirable amount of sleaze as a cocaine kingpin, but he’s in all of two scenes. Through it all, newcomer Merritt performs admirably in his star turn, but it’s hardly a breakout given the indelicate scripting he’s forced to struggle through.
If I’m being hard on White Boy Rick, it’s because Demange and his team of writers positioned their pulpy crime thriller as a prestige picture but forgot to include the prestige. If you’re shooting for awards bait, you don’t get to squander a talented cast, an aesthetically engaging period setting and compelling true story and still lay claim to critical recommendation. Had they set their sights a little lower, White Boy Rick could have been a passably diverting piece of popcorn exploitation cinema. Had they taken another few passes at the script, they might have eventually found themselves in the rarified air they were aiming for. As it stands, White Boy Rick will, like its protagonist, be remembered only as a victim of its own overzealous ambitions — if it’s remembered at all.