Many who hear about Affluenza may at first assume that the movie is a look inside the thoroughly depressing case of Ethan Couch, a Texas teen who drove drunk and caused a crash, killing four and injuring two. During his trial, a psychologist argued Couch was a victim of “affluenza,” as the product of rich parents who never set boundaries for him or taught him to understand the relationship between actions and consequences. The case made national headlines when the judge sentenced him to ten years of probation and therapy in a cushy rehab facility – a sentence that defied basic ideas of both logic and justice with its leniency.
Unfortunately, Affluenza does not explore that inflammatory case – however, its teenage subjects are certainly comparable to Couch. Set in pre-recession 2008 on privileged Long Island, the film follows an aspiring photographer named Fisher (Ben Rosenfield) who comes to stay with his upper-class relatives after his parents divorce. Armed with a stash of high-quality weed, Fisher breaks into the affluent social circle of his gorgeous, overindulged cousin Kate (Nicola Peltz), only to become wrapped up in a dangerous love triangle between Kate, her jerk-off boyfriend Todd (Grant Gustin) and the fatally idealistic Dylan (Gregg Sulkin) – just as the stock market crash is about to bring all their decadent lifestyles crashing down around them.
For all intents and purposes, Affluenza might’ve been called The Good Gatsby – its plot closely parallels F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of opulence and entitlement, and its characters have many traits in common with his protagonists though, as a whole, director Kevin Asch and writer Antonio Macia lack Fitzgerald’s knack for compelling and complex characterization. That’s a criticism, sure, but honestly, when one starts holding screenwriters up against a legend like Fitzgerald, all of modern cinema withers by comparison. What Asch and Macia have brought to the table definitely does the job, introducing a crop of characters you can grow to, if not love, at least understand and be entertained by. I do wish that, particularly in the film’s final third, the pair could have avoided tipping their hats to The Great Gatsby so loudly and incessantly, but when one is telling a story about the rich and self-obsessed, I guess it just goes to show that you can’t beat the golden standard.
Though Affluenza‘s story hits familiar notes, Asch’s direction is full of the same visual style that rescued his film Holy Rollers. Though of course his Long Island lacks the madhouse razzle-dazzle of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, the director (aided by evocative work from cinematographer Tim Gillis) effectively conveys the seductive extravagance of Kate’s upper-class lifestyle. At first, Fisher is drawn in by the promise of casual sex, ample drugs, plentiful alcohol and freedom from any parental supervision, and Asch’s treatment of his early days with Kate reflects that, but as the seedier side of life at the top of the food chain reveals itself, Affluenza grows visually more baleful and foreboding.
The performances help with that too. Though Rosenfield’s Nick Carraway protagonist can and often is a bit of a prick, he’s a solid choice to thrust audiences into Kate’s world, using his antique camera to put an intermittently helpful barrier between himself and his new friends. The actor convincingly plays Fisher as a fish out of water, immediately swept up by and eventually disillusioned with the lifestyle of the rich and the bored, but more often than not he acts like a documentarian, residing outside of the world he’s photographing.
Peltz, whom filmgoers will remember either from Bates Motel or from getting openly ogled in short-shorts by Michael Bay in Transformers: Age of Extinction, is a terrific choice to play Kate, Affluenza‘s Daisy figure. Like Emma Watson’s Nicki in The Bling Ring, Peltz plays Kate as an alternately pitiful and detestable figure, so convinced of her own importance and invulnerability that she never gives a moment to reconsidering her selfish, consumerist ways. It’s a great performance, one delivered with unexpected subtlety and grace.
Sulkin is most impressive as Dylan, who dotes on Kate with an affection that looks more like idol worship than genuine love. He’s the film’s Gatsby figure, articulating his sentences with odd formality and always dressing above and beyond the occasion. Unfortunately, the fact that these characters are teenagers adds a little confusion to his passionate courtship of Kate – how much actual love could have really formed when they were both eight? I was half expecting the character to invite Fisher along for a ride on his hydroplane – and though that plot device has been updated to a beautiful boat, the end result is the same. Sulkin communicates the character’s desperate, idealistic heart and fragile sense of self-worth with better-than-expected dramatic depth.
Finally, Gustin suffers from the most under-written role but still milks his Tom Buchanan stand-in for every last bit of nastiness, even as the arc of the plot paints him less as a brute and more as another one of Kate’s many pawns. Both Dylan and Todd are putty in Kate’s hands, and she cruelly plays each of them, keeping the boys happy but apart as they each shower her with gifts, and never considering the consequences of such duplicity (there’s that affluenza again).
As a topical, modern-day interpretation of The Great Gatsby, Affluenza is a modest success, capturing both the hypnotic pull of the characters’ luxurious lives and the familiar terror of having a once-secure rug suddenly pulled out from under you. When the stock market crash arrives, it has tragic consequences for all the teens at Affluenza‘s center – and for their equally loathsome parents (as Kate’s dissonant parents, Steve Guttenberg and Samantha Mathis are both delectably abhorrent). That you feel for characters so unthinking and overindulged speaks to the strength of the performances.
And as Fisher, Kate and Dylan internally reel from the collapse of their family fortunes, Affluenza begs the question, who’s more to blame for the teens’ self-destructive personalities? Their parents, who simultaneously coddled and abandoned them to their worst impulses? Or themselves, for never even attempting to wrest control of their own lives away from the older generation? Considering the answers may push you to re-examine both the Couch case and the complexities of the invisible strings that come attached to wealth. There’s nothing in Affluenza that’s going to endure like Fitzgerald’s novel – if anything, Affluenza works simply to re-introduce the same themes to a younger audience, preferring that great author’s voice to any echo of its own. But if The Great Gatsby had to be (slightly) updated to reflect our times, at least the end product is a film with good performances, effective direction and a satisfying bite.