Human Capital

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First-world and real-world problems collide in Human Capital, which started life as an American novel, became an Italian movie (Il capitale umano) in 2013 and then returned to the US in 2019 for this English-language version. How best to describe all three? Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Ice Storm will about do it. In other words a broad spectrum portrait of modern life, with a narrow focus critique of the elite at its core.

It starts, as Bonfire of the Vanities did, with a car accident, and then plays and replays the story from the point of view of each of the characters involved. Not the same events, exactly, but a “how did we get here?” summary.

First, the accident, a waiter cycling home after a hard shift is clipped by a speeding Jeep and goes flying into a thicket. Is the waiter dead? Who was driving the car? The film returns to these questions as its focus moves between the characters involved.

What a cast. Liev Schreiber as Drew Hagel, a try-hard real estate broker and ex gambler with a new wife, Ronnie (Betty Gabriel) now expecting twins, who borrows money he doesn’t have to place a stake with the hedge fund of big swinging Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard), his daughter’s boyfriend’s father. Without that family connection Quint wouldn’t even have given Drew the time of day, a fact the supercilious Quint doesn’t fail to make abundantly clear.

Quint’s wife, Carrie (Marisa Tomei), is the sort of pampered creature who needs a project and so she buys – or gets her husband to buy it for her – a rundown movie theatre. Drew’s daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), perma-pissed off with dad, about to leave home for good, dallying with Quint’s son Jamie (Fred Hechinger) possibly because he’s loaded, possibly because she believes him to be gay and therefore easy to deal with. Off to the side is Ian (Alex Wolff), a troubled teenage client of shrink Ronnie, who catches Shannon’s eye. See The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield for further details.

Maya Hawke as Shannon
Maya Hawke as Shannon

That’s the neatly dovetailing roster of potential hit-and-runners. Really, though, this film plays out through the eyes of Drew (suffering as the “dead cert” bet goes wrong), Carrie (distraught over the power asymmetry of her relationship with Quint) and Shannon (fearful that the relationship she wants with Ian won’t happen). Sweaty, tearful and moist respectively.

There are no bad performances in this film but the leads are particularly good, especially Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman), who has the extra challenge of playing a character in flux and does it well and with a breezy light touch. Oren Moverman wrote the screenplay and has an ear for the different ways the characters talk, while keeping everything inside a ballsy, recognisably Mametian universe.

A screen version of the Great American Novel is the intention, and Human Capital is happy to sit right in the middle of that tradition, making no mistakes but taking no big gambles. Unusually, and unsettlingly, Quint Manning is not the bad guy. He’s just a rich asshole being a rich asshole. None better than Sarsgaard at playing this level of entitlement. The fool, the one who gets his comeuppance, is Drew, rewarded for the biblical sin of covetousness.

When fate comes swinging at you, make sure you’re ready and not over-exposed. Which is a hard sell for anyone watching who’s mortgaged to the hilt, or scraping by month to month. At the other end of the telescope, meanwhile, the question has to be asked: whose story is this? Drew’s, my little precis would seem to suggest, but Moverman and director Marc Meyers seem to want to spend more time with Shannon, leaving Liev Schreiber and this potentially fascinating drama slightly hanging in the wind.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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