The end credits for Kevin Asch’s film “Affluenza” may not acknowledge “The Great Gatsby” as its obvious inspiration, but the film hews so closely to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that it practically counts as source material. Recasting the great Jazz Age saga of class mores and American decline among a bunch of Long Island rich kids during the financial meltdown of 2008, the film hits all the book’s basic notes without ever seeming to grasp its main point, making for a splashy-looking yet depressingly empty exercise that is never more shallow than the times when it tries to go deep. The film launches on VOD this weekend, with a Los Angeles theatrical rollout next weekend.
To list the number of parallels between “Gatsby” and “Affluenza” might seem like piling on, but it’s also the quickest way to lay out the cast of characters. The Nick Carraway role of passive, outsider protagonist is here played by Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), who goes to spend a few weeks at the sprawling Great Neck home of his humorless cousin/Daisy stand-in, Kate (Nicola Peltz). Fisher is accosted at a lavish party by the devilishly handsome and Gatsby-esque Dylan (Gregg Sulkin), who enlists his help to win back his childhood love Kate/Daisy from under the nose of her churlish, preppy boyfriend Todd (Grant Gustin), who plays the Tom Buchanan part.
Continuing the parallels, Kate/Daisy’s questionable driving ability provides a pertinent plot point; an unused swimming pool bears deep symbolic relevance to Dylan/Gatsby; Todd/Tom keeps a lower-class mistress (Carla Quevedo) on the side; and Fisher/Nick has an unsatisfying flirtation with a girl named Jody (Valentina de Angelis). (Despite several sequences set at a country club, Jody/Jordan is never allowed to swing a golf club.)
Anyone who passed a high-school English class, or caught Baz Luhrmann’s last film, should be able to sketch a rough outline of the plot from here on out. Yet the denouement lands with a thud, and timing the film to the collapse of Lehman Brothers — snippets of speeches from Barack Obama and George W. Bush periodically interrupt the action — never primes the pump for the film to move beyond blase hand-wringing about runaway capitalism and the perils of privilege.
Unlike Nick Carraway, Fisher never seems particularly intrigued by his entree into the world of the moneyed elite; nor does Dylan hold much fascination for him aside from his connections to a Gotham art school where Fisher hopes to gain admittance. Fisher is an aspiring photographer, and his artistic inclinations give the audience its only indication that we’re supposed to see this kid as someone less spiritually bankrupt than his peers. In fact, Fisher’s sense of remove only makes him seem several degrees more jaded than the rest, which is saying something.
Given that the film takes place amongst a bunch of college-aged layabouts, the characters’ parents have parts to play as well, usually providing either unnecessary subplots or hectoring commentary. Steve Guttenberg has the largest role as Kate’s stockbroker father, who makes periodic entrances to rail against “iPods and Tweeters” and bark phrases like “These are the smartest guys in the room!” when the economic meltdown commences. Roger Rees plays a Luciferian Wall Street CEO who hisses a screed against millennial entitlement and Ritalin addiction, which would be easy to ignore if it didn’t open the film like some grand prelude. Only Danny Burstein, as Fisher’s Andrew Sullivan-lookalike gay father, gets to play an adult part with any subtlety.
The youngsters in the cast largely seem to realize they’re in an off-brand “Gossip Girl” episode and tailor their performances accordingly, though Rosenfield carries the film well enough. Photography and production design are all perfectly professional, and composer MJ Mynarski employs a recurring theme that riffs on the main melody of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” which appeared on the same album that gave Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” its title. That musical quotation may well be the smartest bit of commentary in the film.