Bad movies come in all shapes, sizes and genres, and have the capacity to rub a viewer wrong depending on a variety of conditions. But there’s something especially exasperating about the cinematic misfire that believes it is imparting crafty truths or insight about the social condition of an era. Such is the case with Affluenza, a stilted, utterly phony drama of rich-kid angst that thinks it’s saying something about the hidden perils of privilege but is actually just an exercise in wheel-spinning inanity.
Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield) kind of maybe possibly wants to be a photographer, or something. After he gets into some minor trouble at school, his father, Ira (Danny Burstein), deposits Fisher with his rich uncle, Philip (Steve Guttenberg), a wound-up financial sector asshole; his aunt Bunny (Samantha Mathis), a cocktail-sipping stay-at-home wife and mother with the sort of emotional tendencies that suggests; and his cousin, Katherine (Nicola Peltz), who, like, is into tanning, and begrudgingly introduces Fisher to her social circle. In short order, Fisher’s marijuana connections open doors, both to Katherine’s boyfriend, Todd (Grant Gustin), and the rich party guy, Dylan (Gregg Sulkin), who wants to win her over. Complications ensue, naturally.
The performances herein are mostly a wash—functional embodiments of thinly defined characters. Rosenfield has a slightly detached quality that works well for the distinct apartness of Fisher. (Anton Yelchin, having previously had these sorts of roles on lockdown, by way of movies like Middle of Nowhere and Fierce People, seems to have finally aged out of them. Or perhaps he was unavailable.) Peltz, of the recent Transformers: Age of Extinction and herself the daughter of a billionaire, conveys a certain blithe snootiness, though it’s difficult to gauge whether that is a function of talent or coincidence. And the apple-cheeked Sulkin almost achieves multidimensionality as Dylan, the slightly awkward nouveau-rich kid who has to carve out and defend his social status against sneering, old-money-with-training-wheels types.
Director Kevin Asch’s previous film, Holy Rollers, stood astride two contrasting and colliding worlds—telling the (true) story of Hasidic Jews recruited to smuggle ecstasy from Eastern Europe into the United States—and it had a relaxed assurance and genuine quality to match its odd, interesting story. Unfortunately, the only quality Affluenza shares with that film is an attractive visual presentation—in this case a backdrop of conspicuous consumption, effectively rendered on a budget. The movie looks quite nice, with stylish and subtle work from cinematographer Tim Gillis.
The story proper, however, is a feebly imagined mess. Affluenza fancies itself a Grand Statement, akin to Andrew Dominik’s divisive Killing Them Softly, since it also unfolds in 2008 and plugs in a couple clips of candidates Barack Obama and John McCain running for president and then-president George W. Bush assaying the ruinous collapse of the American economy’s financial sector. But it has nothing of substance to say. Whatever one ultimately thought of it, Killing Them Softly was a coiled-spring disquisition on the systemic nature of corruption in unregulated markets; its plot was a commentary on the financial collapse, and vice versa. Affluenza merely features characters who live in this bubble. And then, when the shit hits the fan, a couple of them yell loudly about it, and ruminate about how things are “over.”
Screenwriter Antonio Macia, who also collaborated with Asch on Holy Rollers, seems to be working in Bret Easton Ellis Lite mode, grafting together elements of The Informers and vapid plotlines from the original Beverly Hills, 90210, and transposing them to the East Coast and Wall Street set. The film peddles hedonistic behavior and dramatic conflict surrounding the same in entirely unconvincing fashion, and the script’s grasp of family dynamics is jaw-droppingly off. (Differently gendered cousins don’t typically change clothes or wear only bath towels around one another.)
In the end, someone dies, so there’s more yelling and a fight on a golf course—maybe because a producer secured that location on the cheap, and it seemed like another way to add to the movie’s production value. Whatever the case, viewers of Affluenza may indeed be left wanting to shoot the rich—not because of any persuasively argued moral bankruptcy, though, but merely out of frustration over their stupidity.
Director: Kevin Asch
Writer: Antonio Macia
Starring: Ben Rosenfield, Nicola Peltz, Gregg Sulkin, Grant Gustin, Steve Guttenberg, Samantha Mathis, Valentina de Angelis, Carla Quevedo, Danny Burstein, Roger Rees
Release Dates: July 11 (VOD) and July 18, 2014 (limited)
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy and Magill’s Cinema Annual, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him onTwitter and on his blog.