A terrific premise — Can non-urban Caucasian youngsters from the Corn Belt lay a legitimate claim to inner-city-inspired language and attitudes? — receives frustratingly uneven treatment in Marc Levin’s “Whiteboys.” Pic presents the choppy saga of a harmless white lug from Iowa who insists he’s really black, uses harsh ghetto slang when addressing his equally pasty-faced classmates and dreams of moving to a housing project in Chicago where he can hang with his homies, deal drugs, land a record deal and bask in the camaraderie of his “nigger brothers.” Levin’s previous fiction outing, “Slam,” galvanized fest audiences worldwide but underperformed in theaters. Current effort is a wobbly showcase for star and co-scripter Danny Hoch that, despite its shortcomings, will be easy to market. Already playing in Detroit, pic opens Oct. 8 in New York and L.A.
Gaping implausibilities in motivation — particularly where the handful of actual black characters is concerned — mar a sometimes funny script whose high points are rap-video-style fantasies that graft hard-core rap scenarios onto the sun-drenched cornfields of Iowa. Story centers on Flip (Hoch), who, with only TV and records as his guides, lives and breathes rap music and rap style with his two closest male pals, middle-class Trevor (Mark Webber) and working-class James (Dash Mihok).
A frankly strange-looking but well-meaning doofus who got left back a year at school, Flip somehow rates the affections of pretty college-bound Sara (Piper Perabo). As post-senior summer draws to a close, Flip impregnates Sara, gets himself thrown into jail out of a sincere but ridiculous sense of solidarity with acquaintance Khalid (Eugene Bird) — a well-to-do city boy and pre-law student who may be the only black teenager in town — and mostly fantasizes about parlaying his minimal rapping skills into success as a gangsta.
Why Flip is humored even slightly in these obscenely misplaced aspirations is unclear. But if anyone set him straight on his nonexistent prospects as a black man and entertainer, there wouldn’t be a movie.
Flip’s dad is laid off from his factory job after 25 years and Flip’s mom is humiliated at having to use food stamps, but Flip remains oblivious to his real family’s difficulties, preferring to identify with his adopted black heritage.
In a painfully unconvincing scene, Flip talks Khalid into making the several-hour drive to Chicago, where Flip — whose regional “dealing” experience consists of fobbing off flour as coke to disco patrons — intends to walk into a lucrative situation as a drug kingpin. There’s no way Khalid would go looking for drugs in the projects and absolutely no way the dealer they approach (Bonz Malone) would give them the time of day. The whole trumped-up Chicago episode — in which at least one person gets killed — exists exclusively to teach Flip a lesson.
Many scenes of confrontation play like heavy-handed, uncomfortably forced improv. Perhaps Levin’s long career in documaking (where, by definition, everything one aims the camera at will probably register as true because it did, in fact, happen) is at fault, but far too much of “Whiteboys” rings false — above and beyond the obvious and intended falseness that indicates how far from black Flip is and forever shall be.
But young auds who don’t notice mile-wide holes in flamboyant Hollywood fare are unlikely to be sticklers for airtight authenticity here. Pic disappoints mostly in comparison to what it could have been given a tighter script and less scattershot perfs.
Saul Williams’ skill gave “Slam” a rock-solid core, but Hoch’s performance style can’t keep “Whiteboys” from treading water. Too many scenes play like actors acting rather than life being lived as pic lurches around with ragged variations in tone.
Rap fantasy sequences — with genuine big-name guest stars — display the wit and unstrained punch that’s too often lacking in the body of the film. Faux musicvideo in which cornfields burst into flames yielding a shower of popcorn kernels is particularly clever, with prison fantasy during which Flip and cellmate Snoop Dogg are served shrimp and lobster by obsequious jail personnel a close second. Score seems destined to please target audience.