“So we beat on,” concludes The Great Gatsby, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Of course, this assumes that one has a significant past to be borne ceaselessly back into—unlike, say, teenagers, who haven’t generally lived long enough to accumulate regrets or the desire to recapture lost glory. Refashioning Gatsby as a teen melodrama is thus spectacularly pointless, though that hasn’t stopped director Kevin Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia, who previously collaborated on Holy Rollers (the Jesse Eisenberg movie about Hasidic Jews working as drug mules). Affluenza doesn’t officially credit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, and Macia only loosely borrows its narrative: rich dude who throws lavish parties, new friend whose cousin the rich dude desires, deadly swimming pool, etc. Nonetheless, the film is an empty shell, reducing a complex lament to a shallow portrait of wealthy hedonists behaving badly.
Here, the Nick Carraway figure—still very much inhabiting his younger and more vulnerable years—is an aspiring photographer named Fisher (Ben Rosenfield, who played Willie Thompson on the most recent season of Boardwalk Empire). Though he doesn’t come from money himself, Fisher’s aunt (Samantha Mathis) married a wealthy businessman (Steve Guttenberg, disguised with glasses and a pencil mustache but overacting atrociously as usual), and Fisher is spending the summer at their house in Great Neck, on the north shore of Long Island, where he’s barely tolerated by his snobby cousin Kate (Nicola Peltz of Bates Motel). He’s speedily adopted, however, by the fabulously rich Dylan Carson (Gregg Sulkin), who has the hots for Kate and hopes to use Fisher to get to her. Complicating matters is Kate’s boyfriend, Todd (Grant Gustin), who’s arguably more interested in the high-quality weed Fisher sells than he is in Kate.
Because Dylan’s pursuit of Kate isn’t rooted in an earlier, abbreviated courtship—as Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is—it comes across as little more than one vacuous young twit obsessed with another. (Be thankful for small favors: At least there’s no attempt at a modern-day equivalent of the famous shirts scene, with Kate weeping at the beauty of Dylan’s Aéropostale wardrobe.) Nor is Fisher a remotely interesting protagonist—he’s even more passive than Nick Carraway, incredibly, to the point where his decision to audit a photography course qualifies as high drama. True to its portmanteau title, Affluenza just wants to diagnose the sybaritic moral turpitude of the upper crust, as if nobody else ever thought to condemn indolent millionaires before. Setting the film in 2008, during Obama’s first presidential campaign, provides an extra touch of pretension, with various TV sets blaring speeches about the economy as background counterpoint (a tactic that was at least employed more aggressively in Killing Them Softly). Insight eludes these filmmakers, but that’s no matter—tomorrow they will run faster, stretch out their arms farther…