White Boy Rick

The trailers for this didn’t make it looking promising. It seemed like the same rise and fall story of a drug dealer (Donnie Brasco, American Made, Blow, etc.), with the always greasy and emancipated looking Matthew McConaughey. What made the movie enjoyable was the incredible acting. Rick is played by newcomer Richie Merritt, who answered a casting call at his high school in Baltimore. He’s so natural in his performance, and it was refreshing that in moments where he needed to show a variety of emotions, he just barely showed them. It felt more like what the real character would’ve been like.

There’s Bruce Dern, who has been one of my favorite actors since the ‘70s (his wife is played by the legendary Piper Laurie, but she’s not given a lot to do). And there’s another newcomer I dig — RJ Cyler. He was incredible in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. When I ran into him at the afterparty at the Critics’ Choice awards a few years ago, I asked what movie he was doing next. He told me Power Rangers and I rolled my eyes. He laughed and said, “I know.”

So it was a pleasant surprise to see him in this, and he was incredible as Boo, the friend of Rick who hangs out at a pool hall and works with a local drug lord.

As great as the cast was, I can’t say the same for the screenplay. It’s got a number of flaws, and since this is “based on a true story” I have little patience for that. It’s what ruined BlacKkKlansman. In this, we’re supposed to believe that the FBI used Rick, a 15-year-old, to buy drugs from a crackhouse. And then they gave him a brick of cocaine, telling him he should chop it and make crack…so they can use the information on the buyers to arrest others. There’s no way that happened.

French director Yann Demange (‘71) gave us an account that screenwriter Andy Weiss (Punk’d) provided, and it’s entertaining (my wife told me she was bored, though).

Richard Wershe Jr., (“White Boy” Rick) is a small time hustler, helping his dad (McConaughey) scam weapons cheaper at gun shows. They turn around and sell them, often adding illegal accessories (silencers he makes in the garage). In a scene that confused my wife and I, the son shows up at a pool hall with the biggest drug dealer in town, with a couple of guns and silencers to sell. Uh…did his dad put him up to this? We think so, which makes you feel like all the preaching dad does throughout the movie feels false. Sometimes that involves his daughter (Bel Powley from the terrific Diary of a Teenage Girl), who is on her way to becoming a junkie. Other times that means lectures to his son on how to do what’s right in life, which to dad, seems to be buying and selling drugs and guns illegally, until he has enough money to turn into his character in Ed TV and run a video store.

When Rick wants to help his sister, and his dad, it’s admirable. Even though he’s got this naive ambition and crappy thug attitude, you start to root for him. Except that every 10 minutes he does something stupid.

FBI agents quickly get involved (played well by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, but neither given enough to do). They want Rick to be an informant (and apparently, a drug dealer) for them, and they threaten to put his dad away on gun charges if he doesn’t cooperate.

We get a few glimpses of Rick away from the drug crowd. He likes spending time with his grandparents. He enjoys talking with his sister. He shows interest in a girl (Kyanna Simone Simpson).

Of course, audiences are probably more interested in him hanging out with his homies. Sometimes that’s at a roller rink (making me think of the much better Boogie Nights). Other times it’s going to Las Vegas all blinged out, to watch their Detroit fighter Thomas Hearns going against Marvin Hagler.

There’s enough comic relief that the movie didn’t just feel depressing (although my wife disagrees on that point, too).

There’s solid production design (Stefania Cella) and cinematography (Tat Radcliffe).

It was also refreshing that the soundtrack didn’t feel like a tacky “best of” compilation. The songs worked for the mid-80s time period in Detroit, and sometimes you barely heard them in the background.

The movie started off with Johnny Cash’s underrated “Cocaine Blues.” Later, we heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Scorpio” (and part of “White Lines”), Eric B.’s “Paid in Full,” Bob James’ “Take Me to Mardi Gras,” as well as Run DMC, George Clinton, and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.”

3 stars out of 5.