“White Boy Rick,” the newest film from French Algerian director Yann Demange, is the latest “see-to-believe” true crime thriller. Despite having a fascinating premise, the film was meant to inaugurate the fall movie season with a bang, but falls desperately short.
When he was 14, Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), the youngest of two in a lower middle-class family in eastside Detroit, was hired by the FBI to buy and sell drugs undercover. He became the youngest informant ever but just four years later, when his services were no longer required, he began selling drugs for himself and quickly became America’s youngest cocaine kingpin.
Wershe Jr.’s bizzare life calls for a film adaptation that takes the viewer deep into his mind; it is this possibility of being inside the mind of a 17-year-old drug lord that will get people to the theater as filmgoers have always been attracted to criminal psychology, especially in unbelievable cases like “Zodiac” (2007) or “Catch Me if You Can,” (2002) which also featured a minor becoming an affluent criminal. “White Boy Rick” does not deliver on this front. In its haste to move quickly through the many wild chapters of Rick’s life, the film sacrifices a deeper insight into the young outlaw’s mind.
While its narrative is reminiscent of “Goodfellas” (1990) — another film about a kid growing up in the criminal underworld — it falls short when it never lets the audience partake in the adrenaline Rick may have felt at the height of his powers nor the the despair at his lowest. The blame falls mainly on poor pacing, an unclear style and subpar performances from most of the cast.
The movie has a lot to juggle with in the many stages of its protagonist’s eclectic life. In its ambition to tackle so grand a subject, it ultimately never achieves balance between the various episodes of Rick’s experience. By moving too fast, it leaves barely any room to ruminate on what is going on: One moment Rick is working for the FBI and the next he is knee-deep in the drug world — a jarring, hardly explained rise to the top. This tight packaging of events suffocates the film and makes it hard to follow.
The story’s 1980s setting could have injected vitality into the film (just as it does in Netflix’s nostalgic “Stranger Things”), but every disco party scene, every money-making montage and every 80s oldie playing in the background is either misplaced or cut too short. In Rick’s first visit to “The Skate and Roll,” a roller-skating rink that doubles as the favorite rendezvous for the criminal youth, the audience is introduced to the vibrant scene along with Rick, but this sequence ends much too quickly for the following scenes to reap its energy.
The hope of clumsy films are its actors, but here, every performance is subordinate to Matthew McConaughey’s as Richard Wershe Sr. Without his unrelenting energy, the film would have capitulated entirely, but McConaughey transforms his twang and talent to a highly sentimental character, making him the most convincing part of the movie. The real Wershe Sr. juggled a junkie daughter, a decaying father and a drug dealing son; in his fatherly role, McConaughey can connect with his audience and transmit a genuine passion for keeping the family together.
Alongside McConaughey is newcomer Merritt, a first-time actor who has mentioned in interviews that this is not only his first acting job, but it is his first job of any kind.
In some scenes more than others, it is painfully clear how inexperienced Merritt is. For much of the film, he fails to nuance his character with his limited arsenal of facial expressions and vocal intonations. Although painfully stale for most of his performance, Merritt flourishes in a couple of scenes such as one where he yells at his father in complete despair at their poverty; these are rumblings of true potential that may take a little more time and experience to fully unlock.