TMN Movie Review: "Affluenza"

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An aspiring young photographer finds himself caught up in a heady world of money, sex, and privilege when he moves to wealthy Long Island in the summer of 2008.
3.5

Rating: NR
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Directed by: Kevin Asch
Genre: Drama

In 2013, "The Great Gatsby" told a story of a middle-class man making his way into an elite circle of privileged individuals. One year later, "Affluenza" continues that them with a plot that follows Fisher Miller, an aspiring photographer who visits his wealthy cousin on Long Island just as the recession of 2008 is taking hold. Dramatic and insightful, this film is a lighter, more youthful take on the dangers of hedonism.

Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield) is an amateur photographer who wishes to go to art school, but when he visits his stockbroker uncle Philip (Steve Guttenberg) and aunt Bunny (Samantha Mathis), his whole world changes. Armed with a stash of top-quality weed and an old camera, he escapes his middle-class lifestyle for the summer to visit their home in Great Neck, Long Island. His cousin Kate (Nicola Peltz) isn't overly interested in Fisher's arrival, spending most of her days tanning by the pool or heading to town for a shopping spree.

During his stay, Fisher becomes fast friends with Dylan Carson (Gregg Sulkin), a ridiculously rich, college-aged man who is neglected by his father and happens to have some connections to the art school Fisher wishes to attend. Dylan is madly in love with Fisher's snobby cousin, and he hopes that the young photographer can help him get to her. However, his efforts are hindered by Kate's boyfriend Todd Goodman (Grant Gustin) despite the fact that Todd seems rather disinterested in Kate, even having an affair on the side. Dylan is willing to do anything to be with Kate, even going so far as to call out for her from under her window in a failed Romeo-and-Juliet attempt.

Although Fisher has a fleeting romance with a wealthy woman named Jody (Valentina de Angelis), he becomes increasingly disinterested in the hedonistic, empty lifestyle of the excessively rich. Against a backdrop of Obama's run for president and eventual election, the privileged children and their parents soon discover that everything is about to change as the Great Recession approaches. Fisher begins to collide with his aunt, uncle and other individuals. Eventually, he realizes that the life of wealth is much more blind and vulnerable than he first thought.

The parallels to "The Great Gatsby" are striking, assuring viewers that the filmmakers used the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald as one of their major sources of inspiration. The story of a naive, middle-class individual moving to a shore-front community of wealthy people is incredibly familiar. Kate fills the role of Daisy, and Dylan is the perfect substitute for the love-stricken Jay Gatsby. In many ways, "Affluenza" can be seen as "The Great Gatsby" for younger audiences. A major difference lies in the film's climax. While the ending of "Affluenza" focuses on an economic recession, "The Great Gatsby" ends with more personal drama.

Despite its obvious charm, there are a few glaring flaws that may perturb the more critical viewer. The story tries to be deep at times. However, the shallow lives and problems of the characters do not let this succeed, partly due to the fact that the youthful characters have such little back-story. Also, the characters themselves are not overly interesting, although a few show some genuinely strong personality. Although the film utilizes some clever, perfectly timed dialog, it also suffers from its fair share of cheesy lines that steal away any mounting drama. These elements culminate in a film that is undoubtedly entertaining but far from thoughtful.

Despite its drawbacks, "Affluenza" has a lot going for it with an excellent score by MJ Mynarski and flawless production design. The glamorous costumes of the young actors are appropriately indulgent without looking over-the-top. The actors themselves sink into their roles with apparent ease. Rosenfield carries the film through its weaker moments, creating an interesting character who is as genuine as he is relatable. The use of current themes may not achieve the same glamour as the jazz-era setting of "The Great Gatsby," but "Affluenza" effectively uses the familiar setting to shed light on the upper-class drama that certainly occurred during the recent economic catastrophe.

Although "Affluenza" could have achieved more with a few tweaks to its script, the Gatsby-esque story is still a well-paced, intriguing look at the rise and fall of the affluent. The more recent setting of the Great Recession of 2008 is sure to hit home for many viewers, and the actors truly bring the script to life as they give audiences a rare look at the life of privilege. Overall, "Affluenza" may not be a complete masterpiece, but it's definitely well worth watching.