It’s hard to know which is more surprising about this movie — that investors paid $29 million to make it, that theater owners were willing to open it on more than 2,500 screens last week, or that Matthew McConnaughey agreed to appear in the thing.
The essential problem is the script. Scripts are reviewed pretty carefully by funders, actors and actors’ agents before they commit themselves to projects. And this script stinks.
The story, drawn apparently from stomach-churning reality, is about Rick Wershe, Jr., (newbie Richie Merritt), a young teenager who gets involved in the crack cocaine dealing community in mid-1980s Detroit. The African American dealers give him the moniker that is the film’s title.
WBR, a dropout, lives with his junkie sister, Dawn (Bel Powley,) and dad (McConnaughey) in an old house across the street from his grandparents (Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie), who are there to reaffirm the family theme and complain when their car is stolen.
Dad’s a devoted father who worries about his daughter and raises money by buying fake AK-47s, which he outfits with silencers and then sells at huge profits to gang members. His goal is to open a movie rental store.
WBR sees the luxy gang life, carries guns frequently and sometimes shoots rats for sport as Detroit declines around him. He is recruited by law enforcement as a snitch and gets shot for it. Then, in a move for which the film congratulates him, he decides to help his family by selling crack again. He succeeds nicely until the law catches up with him at age 17 and deals with him harshly.
The movie ends on a note of outrage about the lengthy prison sentences that were handed down for non-violent drug dealers during the crack epidemic. This is a worthy point but an old one, and not one that justifies the dismal squalor of the story that precedes it. Without the dismal squalor, however, the movie wouldn’t have been made.
“White Boy Rick” has been described in some reviews as “action comedy drama.” For me it was 116 minutes of unremitting punishment.
Rick Wershe’s life-without-parole sentence was ended by the Michigan parole board after 29 years, at which point he was transferred to Florida for another sentence. Apparently he introduced his sister to someone who helped her sell cars and some of the sold cars were stolen; Wershe (but not his sister) copped to two more felonies and may be released in a couple years, when he is 50. He has three children and six grandchildren.
Wershe also has a loyal cadre of supporters who say that, while in prison, he helped law enforcement round up a bunch of crooked cops who were prosecuted and sentenced. The movie might have benefitted from information about this. Wershe has acknowledged and apologized for everything. He may yet have a life ahead of him.