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‘White Boy Rick’ gets high off its own supply

| Thursday, September 20, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“White Boy Rick,” the newest film from French director Yann Demange, is a highly entertaining and embarrassingly facile look at the war on drugs. The Rick of the title is real-life Richard Wershe Jr., who became an FBI informant and drug kingpin in Detroit at the age of 15. In telling his story, the movie takes the same tired tropes that you’ll see in almost every based on a true story film and rigs them to a souped-up engine of humor and great acting that crashes hard in the third act.

“White Boy Rick” is the sophomore feature for Demange, whose 2014 IRA film “’71” is one of the best war movies of the decade. He framed that movie in the same way he does “White Boy Rick,” which draws an uncomfortable connection between the shrapnel-covered Belfast of the former film and the dilapidated Detroit of the latter. Demange’s point is clear: this is a war zone. The conflict in question is President Reagan’s war on drugs, which should provide fertile thematic ground for any movie willing to put in the effort. “White Boy Rick” has no such interest. Like its adolescent protagonist, played with machismo by the promising if uneven newcomer Richie Merritt, the movie simply wants to enjoy the ride without worrying about the future.

And enjoy the ride it does, especially in the thrilling setup. Rick lives with his gun dealing father, Matthew McConaughey (in a career-best performance), and sister, Bel Powley, an Oscar-level talent waiting for the right role, whose mid-movie descent into addiction and subsequent relapse is the movie’s most sorely underutilized thread. They’re the only white family in the neighborhood, thus the movie’s title, which is bestowed on Rick when he tries to sell guns to a black gang and ends up joining their drug operation. From there, Rick’s ascent is dizzyingly fast, replete with the obvious beats you’ll see coming from a mile away if you’ve ever watched “Goodfellas”: the bad decisions and fast living that come with a new lifestyle, all captured in a slick montage set to era-appropriate music — in this case, a perfect usage of Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper.”

The only complication Demange throws in is the one that gives the movie its narrative push. Rick is approached by the FBI agents casing his father for arms dealing, and is asked to be their man on the inside of the gang. He says yes, with a caveat: he’s allowed to keep the money he makes selling drugs. It is in this scene that “White Boy Rick” shows off its surprisingly adept comedic sensibilities, with Rick ignoring the requests of a narcotics officer played by the always-hysterical Brian Tyree Henry, and instead upbraiding him for his fast-food choices. Part of the appeal of “White Boy Rick” does come from its jokes; this is the kind of movie that knows how ridiculous it is when Rick has to find a new gun because his grandma stole his.

As it pushes on into its second half, “White Boy Rick” keeps throwing plot embellishments at the audience to no avail. A surprise pregnancy here, a Vegas excursion there — they all detract from the movie’s most appealing factor, which is the push-and-pull between McConaughey’s Rick Sr. and his children. McConaughey has never been better, turning in an unadorned performance as a man helplessly watching his son and daughter both get sucked into a world he helped create. Rick Sr. absolves himself of any guilt by making his money selling guns and not drugs, and the one time the movie attempts any deeper commentary on his involvement is when another character challenges Rick Sr. on whether dealing one is any better than the other. Even then, the movie brushes off that question at the same time the character does.

A movie doesn’t have to tackle quote-unquote “big issues” to be good or even entertaining. It is disappointing when a film feints at unpacking larger ideas and then retreats, as “White Boy Rick” does again and again. If you want a movie to watch with your brain turned off, you could do a lot worse than “White Boy Rick.” But you still may have the impression that you’re witnessing a missed opportunity.

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