Either you’re a movie star, or you’re not.
As much as we like to nail down the minute details of what makes great performances tic, the glitz and glamorized medium of the big screen will always hold a special place for actors who just light up the silver screen; their inherent star wattage matches the bright lights of the spotlight. Experience nor age has anything to do with it; it’s not reserved exclusively for the seasoned. It’s an inestimable, ineffable, alchemic quality that can be cultivated, trained, developed, honed, nourished, and groomed… but not learned. Either you have that movie star light switch, or you don’t.
In White Boy Rick, damn near every major player — both seasoned: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, Eddie Marsan, etc; and fresh: Bel Powley and Brian Tyree Henry — jams that switch all the way on, a fruitless effort incapable of overcoming shoddy execution of shoddy material; they make more of underwritten characters than they deserve.
But the biggest problem is that the leading man comes up smallest: Richie Merritt as the titular White Boy named Rick. The movie largely rests on his unproven shoulders, which simply cannot shoulder the weight. He’s in damn near every scene, yet somehow ends up doing less overall than everyone else. Since he’s surrounded by such radiant stars, the movie almost becomes a case study in the differences between movie stars and pretenders; again, either you have it, or you don’t. Merritt’s scenes with McConaughey — who has it in spades, sometimes distractingly so; he can’t help but get in his own way from time to time — reveal this unfortunate truth. .
McConaughey just has a face that you want to read like a book, one of those pick-your-own-adventure ordeals, relentlessly open to interpretation. It’s a luminous source, his every reaction and expression a window into deeper multitudes, which creates human multiplicity. Merritt, on the other side of the visage coin, has a marshmallow face, with as much nuanced expression as a marshmallow, never changing, a window to nothing. McConaughey’s eyes have that glint, full of the electric spark of artistic creation; Merritt’s are blank, empty of thought, seemingly focusing predominantly on the task at hand of remembering his lines, and not in an alluringly mysterious and enigmatic way, though that would’ve fit the quietly-contemplative nature his character probably possesses on the page. Eyes need to be a window into, if not the highfalutin soul, then at the very least SOMETHING.
It’s not only McConaughey’s beautifully-rugged mug that separates the two; he communicates with the language of his internally and externally contorting body, AKA language of the body, AKA AKA body language; Merritt’s demeanor remains static and uncommunicative. McConaughey delivers every line with fitting portions of relish; Merritt is reading his lines. McConaughey finds pathos in small moments, shouting Marco throughout, with no Polo in return. McConaughey sizzles; Merritt fizzles.
McConaughey’s by no means the sort of chameleonic thespian who are all the rage these days; he’s from the classical school of movie-stardom: always McConaughey, but always magnetic. There’s a vim and verve to his every gesture; they may look and sound familiar, but he picks role that his natural persona organically colors and richly complicates. Even when a caricature of himself, he finds the truth within (though the returns may be diminished through overt repetition; he’s wisely laid low after the McConnaissance oversaturated his market). When the words coming out of his mouth are unaffecting and ineffective gibberish, we can still get lost in his face, even when unimaginatively framed.
A jabroni script poorly brought to life? Sounds like we’re talking about White Boy Rick again, which does not understand how to visually frame, well, anything. Yann Demange’s direction is missing discernible, well, direction. The tone isn’t bland, it’s not inconsistent; there just is no tone, it’s nonexistent. And what’s pace?
Simply put, nothing playss; not even Laurence Olivier could’ve overcome this shlock.