Liev Schreiber in Human Capital (Photo: Maven Pictures)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Marc Meyers
STARS Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei
Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel Human Capital was previously turned into a 2013 Italian film (Il Capitale Umano) that snagged multiple awards in its homeland and at various film festivals but barely registered stateside, ultimately playing in less than a dozen theaters and earning about the same amount ($158,000) that James Cameron probably spends on any given pair of cuff links. Director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) and writer Oren Moverman (an Academy Award nominee for co-scripting The Messenger) have cited both the book and the previous adaptation as the sources for their own cinematic endeavor, also called Human Capital. It’s a low-key, low-simmer effort that benefits from a suitably kaleidoscopic narrative and a number of fine performances.
The film opens with a hit-and-run between a waiter who’s cycling home late at night and the vehicle that sideswipes him and sends him flying off the road. From here, we’re abruptly dropped into the company of Drew (Liev Schreiber), a real estate agent with a younger wife (Betty Gabriel as Ronnie), a surly daughter (Maya Hawke as Shannon) from a previous marriage, and the usual middle-class worries regarding finances and forward momentum. It soon becomes apparent that this scene takes place before the fateful accident, and we’ll be seeing the events leading up to that incident. But as a way to deepen the plot and tease out the identity of the person driving the car, the movie eventually fractures into different POVs, following various characters as the clock tick-tocks down to zero hour.
Time is initially spent with Drew as he meets the parents of Shannon’s boyfriend Jamie (Fred Hechinger). That would be unctuous venture capitalist Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard) and his dissatisfied wife Carrie (Marisa Tomei). Drew wants a piece of Quint’s sizable hedge-fund pie, so he takes out an ill-advised loan and lies on the SEC documents. He figures it’s worth the risk since he’s bound to become rich — you can guess what happens instead.
The film then shifts its attention to Carrie, who knows that Quint is a womanizing sleaze but remains married to him because she’s grown accustomed to their lofty lifestyle. But she has ambitions of her own; chiefly, renovating an old theater and turning it into an arts center. Along the way, she also finds herself attracted to a professor (Paul Sparks) who remembers her from when she used to appear in low-budget horror flicks.
Lastly, the movie turns to Shannon, and it’s here where the hit-and-run incident finally starts coming into focus and the timeline vaults past the crime. For reasons that eventually become clear, Shannon and Jamie are friends more than lovers, which frees Shannon up to embark on a relationship with a troubled kid named Ian (Alex Wolff). But then the police arrive on the scene, looking for the person who was behind the wheel that night.
The sequences with Drew are the film’s strongest (and also feature the best snatches of dialogue), and it’s a shame when Schreiber largely disappears after his opening act. Tomei is afforded some potent moments opposite Sarsgaard’s Quint, but the subplot involving her dalliance with the teacher feels extraneous and ultimately fizzles out. Initially, the character of Ian seems as superfluous as that of the professor, but as the story progresses, he becomes an integral part of the proceedings.
The early scenes hint that this might be a movie detailing the ceaseless struggle between the haves (i.e. Quint) and the have-nots (Drew), but that theme is really just given a sideways glance. Mostly, Human Capital is a drama that employs a light mystery to showcase how one unfortunate incident can ensnare a multitude of people and either further separate them or bring them closer together. As in life, there are no heroes in this story, just hapless people who love, hate, make bad decisions, and try to keep rotten luck from defining their existences.
(Human Capital is presently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and is tentatively set for wider release in late 2019.)