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White Boy Rick

At age 14, Richard Wershe Jr. became the youngest FBI informant in history. This position got him directly involved with the local drug cartels in Detroit, which gave him extensive knowledge and connections for building up his own drug business when the feds cut him loose. But of course the FBI disavowed any role in the creation of a teenaged drug kingpin. Ultimately, Wershe Jr. (then 17) was convicted in 1987 of possessing over eight kilograms of cocaine with the intent to sell. Per Michigan state law, this meant a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was eventually paroled in 2017, making his thirty-year stay in prison the longest in Michigan state history for a non-violent offender.

Later in 2017, Wershe Jr. was sent right back to prison for his involvement in a car theft ring. The movie leaves out that part.

Yes, Wershe Jr. is now immortalized with the biopic White Boy Rick, played in a starmaking debut by Richie Merritt. This is latest in the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, chronicling the true-life rise and fall of the criminally wealthy, with scores of drugs and sex along the way. (see also: The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs, Pain and Gain, American Made, etc.) But this movie promised to be something different, integrating a “coming-of-age” flavor to the genre. It didn’t work. The main character could’ve been 18 or 20 and it would’ve barely made a difference.

From start to finish, this is a straightforward crime thriller. Aside from a couple of shocking twists here and there, the movie doesn’t offer much of anything that we haven’t seen umpteen times before. Which is all the more disappointing upon consideration of the “white boy in a black man’s world” racial element that doesn’t go anywhere, or the newborn daughter whose arrival contributes basically nothing.

Easily the strongest card in the movie’s deck is its theme of systemic injustice. There are some powerful statements made about the race disparity, pointing out that people of color inevitably get worse sentences than white people charged with the same crimes. What’s more, the filmmakers send the very clear message that getting sent away for life without the possibility of parole as a sentence for a nonviolent crime is immoral and wrong. There are too many prisons in our nation getting filled to capacity because of draconian mandatory sentencing laws against minor non-violent drug offenses. Alas, that highly relevant theme about mandatory sentencing doesn’t come in until that gut-punch of an epilogue. And the racial disparity stuff doesn’t go anywhere new or say anything especially potent.

Then we have all the wonderful acting talents who are wasted here. Matthew McConaughey headlines as Richard Wershe Sr., but he’s a leading man left floundering as he’s cast in a supporting role. Additionally, it’s been reported that the character of Wershe Sr. was deliberately modified to be more likeable than his real-life counterpart, and I believe it. So much of this story could only have made sense if Wershe Sr. was an abusive scumbag, and it’s not like McConaughey couldn’t have played that, but I guess somebody decided for whatever reason that Wershe Sr. should be a loving yet flawed father figure. So the character got watered down and it fits the greater story like a square peg in a round hole.

We’ve also got Jennifer Jason Leigh as an FBI agent, and at least she’s making good use of the “hardass no-nonsense bitch” persona she’s been cultivating lately. There’s also Bel Powley, who practically steals the show as Rick Jr’s. junkie sister. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie, locking down the comic relief as Rick Jr’s grandparents. Oh, and I want to repeat that Richie Merritt is a remarkable find and a natural leading man. There’s a lot of talent in the cast here, but everyone in the cast only registers as actors playing for the camera and I couldn’t get a consistent read on any of the characters.

With the plot, as with the character development arcs, the filmmakers try to incorporate so many hints of something new and different, but the end result only settles into a gray homogeneous mush. It’s one of those frustrating movies that doesn’t do anything new, doesn’t do anything wrong, doesn’t make any huge mistakes, but doesn’t do anything really well. A perfect example is the movie’s emphasis on family drama and how blood ties can be tested by criminal dealings. It’s almost like the filmmakers aren’t aware about how that particular ground has been well-trod for decades by too many countless films to mention.

Even the visuals and sound design are unremarkable. The camerawork is perfectly pedestrian, except for those times when the lighting is so low that the action onscreen is actually obscured.

White Boy Rick is my least favorite kind of film to review because it leaves me with nothing to write about. It’s not bad, it’s not good, and there’s precious little about it that’s memorable. The filmmakers settled for making a pedestrian crime drama when the premise and the cast could have elevated this into so much more.

It’s not a bad movie, just a mediocre one. Not recommended.

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