Posted in: Review

Human Capital (2019)

The title Human Capital sounds like it should accompany a heavily researched social-issue documentary about the way that people have been turned into commodities. But Marc Meyers’ adaptation of Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel is more of a soap opera than a polemic, although it does deal indirectly with income inequality and the dehumanizing effects of extreme wealth. Mostly, though, it’s the story of two suburban New York families tied together by a road accident, and how a single moment of poor judgment can have ripple effects on multiple people’s lives.

Scripted by Oren Moverman, Meyers’ film closely follows Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi’s 2013 adaptation, which was more stylish and more incisive, but otherwise remarkably similar. The movie opens with a waiter, biking home late at night after work, getting clipped by an SUV and thrown into a ditch, as the car drives off. The specter of this impending disaster hangs over the story, as the movie then flashes back to sometime earlier (it’s never quite clear how long) and divides into three sections, each following a different character in the intersecting drama, and each rewinding to begin from the same moment.

First, we meet Drew Hagel (Liev Schreiber), a struggling real estate agent with an inferiority complex and a history of gambling problems. When Drew’s teenage daughter Shannon (Stranger Things breakout star Maya Hawke) starts dating the son of billionaire hedge-fund manager Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard), Drew uses the opportunity to coax a reluctant investment invitation out of Quint, dreaming of massive returns on his money. The problem is that he doesn’t have any money, so he takes out a $300,000 loan and falsifies SEC documents, only to see his investment evaporate as the fund’s market positions falter.

Next up is Quint’s wife Carrie (Marisa Tomei), a frustrated former actress who has everything she could possibly want, except a purpose in life. She seizes on the idea of purchasing and renovating an old theater in town, and her husband reluctantly indulges her, setting up a foundation and hiring a board of directors, which is where she meets a professor (Paul Sparks) whose enthusiasm for the arts (and familiarity with Carrie’s long-faded B-movie career) arouses her passion. Tomei is fantastic in what amounts to a self-contained character study about a middle-aged woman’s ennui, but Carrie’s story turns out to be the least relevant portion of the movie once it returns to focus on the central whodunit.

The third section is the most closely connected to the hit-and-run mystery, returning to follow Shannon and her relationship drama with the Mannings’ sullen son Jamie (Fred Hechinger). Leaving Jamie behind, Shannon gravitates toward troubled bad boy Ian (Alex Wolff), whom she meets through her therapist stepmother Ronnie (Betty Gabriel). Shannon and Ian’s intense romance is the movie’s most overwrought bit of melodrama, greatly expanded from the Italian film, and it feels like the filmmakers’ effort to compensate for the underwhelming (and relatively obvious) reveal of who’s behind the accident.

The talented cast does solid work, most of them finding hidden depths in these generally privileged, self-centered people (although Sarsgaard’s Quint never evolves beyond his initial finance-douche persona). Meyers’ direction is smooth but anonymous, and it’s not hard to imagine this as a mid-level prestige streaming miniseries, which could have expanded on some of the character arcs but probably would have been similarly uninspired. Human Capital is watchable but rarely riveting, and it lacks even the surface-level social commentary that Virzi brought to his version by transposing it into Italian society. It has the veneer of a “grown-up” drama without offering genuine complexity or maturity.