It was an epoch of unbounded efflorescence, but it’s my sad duty to report the end of the McConaissance. Too brief it was, that dazzling period (2012 to 2014) of Magic Mike and True Detective and Interstellar — the Vitruvian Man, Saint Jerome, and Last Supper of the era. Today, after Free State of Jones, Gold, and The Dark Tower, Matthew McConaughey has a fourth straight flop coming with White Boy Rick, a yard-sale jumble of mixed messages and busted narratives in which McC is reduced to playing the loser dad. Or maybe the loving dad. It’s hard to say what we’re to make of his character. It’s hard to say what we’re to make of anything in this confused movie, in which the only rule is that everything leads nowhere.
In a bleak, lint-colored mid-’80s Detroit, White Boy Rick, full name Richard Wershe Jr., is a dopey teen with one of those starter-kit mustaches that looks like shower fungus of the lip. As played by a convincingly vacuous but charisma-challenged Richie Merritt — in his first film role — Rick learns all the wrong lessons from his spectacularly unwise father (McConaughey, looking like he shampoos with 10W-40). Rick Senior is a kind of urban-blight Homer Simpson who sells guns but aspires to get into the lucrative VHS-rental racket. In the background there’s a heroin-addicted sister (Bel Powley) and two screamy grandparents (past Oscar nominees Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) who pop in and out of the story for no discernible reason.
Because Rick Sr. has been playing it loose with gun regulations, the FBI swoops in to question him, hoping he’ll snitch on the local gangsters, but when he refuses, instead of actually charging him with the crimes they say he’s committed, the feds turn to his teen son. Their plan is questionable: Give a 14-year-old kid a gun and drugs and set him loose on the streets. Later they manage to put away a major kingpin and lose interest in Rick, who for his troubles takes a bullet to the gut. Things take a turn into black comedy when Dad avers that everything came out okay. Replies Rick Jr.: “Your daughter is a drug addict and I’m [defecating] into a bag.” Dad: “I’m a glass-half-full guy.”
If only the rest of the movie noticed the black-comedy element of life among the incandescently sleazy. Instead the mood stumbles from emotional family drama to streetwise hustling story. Years roll by (titles inform us when it’s 1985, 1986, and 1987, as if this matters) and more stuff happens. The sister (Bel Powley) gets clean, but so what? Rick learns he has a daughter from a one-night hookup, but this also leads nowhere. He has an (improbable) affair with the imprisoned crime boss’s lady, who is much older and more worldly, but though she delivers the requisite line about the dangers of the game he’s playing, this subplot crashes into a dead end. Meanwhile, having played the role of a drug trafficker for the FBI, White Boy Rick becomes an actual coke lord, and has a great time doing so. Until he gets caught.
McConaughey’s slimy, self-deluding dad — the Willy Loman of AK-47 dealers — is at times written as a parody of Reagan-era entrepreneurs and their get-rich-quick schemes, at other times as a concerned father trying to do his best amid chaos. Rick is heading for an extremely harsh prison term, one disproportionate to his crimes. To you, the moral of this story would appear to be obvious — if you’d like to avoid prison, maybe don’t get caught with 20 pounds of cocaine — but we’re meant to think he was a victim of cruel mistreatment by the FBI and draconian ’80s drug laws. Should he not have gotten a lighter sentence because he helped inform on crooked cops (in a subplot that seems to have been edited out of the movie)? Maybe, but whether Rick deserves to serve ten years or 30 isn’t a compelling enough question around which to build the climax of a movie. Nor does it jibe with an earlier scene in which we’re told white guys get off easily, but black guys serve “black time,” meaning long stretches.
If we’re supposed to believe that a combination of having a sleaze-ball dad and a brief career as an FBI informant made Rick a hapless victim who was forced to become a cocaine kingpin, well, it’s hard to feel sorry for this guy in his ropy gold chains and his pimped-out car with the license plate “SNOW MAN.” Far from being a fascinating anti-hero, White Boy Rick instead seems depressingly ordinary, just another dumb guy who flouted the law until he got caught.