'Human Capital': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A beautifully acted narrative braid whose strands support each other imperfectly.

Marc Meyers follows up 'My Friend Dahmer' with an adaptation of Stephen Amidon's novel, already the source for an Italian film by Paolo Virzi.

Three views on an incident that may well ruin several lives, Marc Meyers' Human Capital adapts both Stephen Amidon's 2004 novel of that name and the well-received Italian film Paolo Virzi made from it. The picture has bigger shoes to fill than those of a respected but relatively little-seen art house movie: Meyers' last outing, My Friend Dahmer, took many by surprise with its unexpectedly sensitive handling of a serial killer's teenage years. Those looking for a similarly left-field follow-up may be disappointed with Capital, which fits a familiar (if welcome) mode of grown-up drama: Here, a high-wattage cast presents contrasting takes on the days just before and after a hit-and-run accident. Engrossing on a moment-to-moment scale thanks so some very fine performances, the film doesn't click together in the transformative way such stories occasionally do, and does less with themes of wealth and class than it surely intends to.

Things open on a fancy dinner thrown to honor a local high-schooler for achievement and leadership. We meet a waiter (Dominic Colon) just long enough to know that, when he's killed by a silver Jeep in the following scene, he'll leave loved ones behind. (Not to blame the victim, but who bikes down a country road at midnight with no lights?) The car pauses, then speeds off.

The next scene would seem to be the following morning, with the Jeep parked in the driveway of an attractive modern mini-mansion. But we're actually at an unspecified moment in the recent past, watching a father (Liev Schreiber's Drew, a local realtor) drop his daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke) off to see her boyfriend, Jamie (Fred Hechinger). Drew hasn't met the family yet, and an encounter with Jamie's mother, Carrie (Marisa Tomei), turns chilly. He makes a slightly better impression with Quint (Peter Sarsgaard), a hedge-fund manager whose flavor of quiet superiority suits Sarsgaard perfectly. The aspirational realtor sees a chance to invest some money with this Midas, and makes an appointment to talk business.

Drew's role in the tragedy we've seen is unclear, but we follow as, during the next few days, he gets into different sorts of trouble. A former gambler, he doesn't actually have the net worth required to invest with Quint's firm. So he lies on SEC forms, takes out ill-advised loans, and then trembles inside when he learns that his wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel), a therapist, is pregnant. Just as he starts to see what his life might look like in shambles, the film moves on without him.

We're now with Carrie, learning some of the reasons we've glimpsed her crying in cars alone. It's not just the obvious — she's the middle-aged housewife of an adulterous capitalist jerk who makes pronouncements like, "competition is healthy by its very nature" — but that's certainly part of it. When Carrie strolls with her own brand of entitlement into an opportunity to rediscover herself, all her hopes for this pet project depend on Quint's indulgence. In one of the film's few moments that don't ring true, a local aesthete (Paul Sparks) grows unusually bold with his potential benefactor, leading the two into an indiscretion.

Again, Oren Moverman's script moves on just as things may be seriously unraveling for our current protagonist. (Though never hard to decipher, the movie's temporal jumps lack the feeling of inevitability that they have in this film's most successful cousins.) We're with Shannon, just breaking up (amicably) with the closeted Jamie, and unwittingly headed for a rebound: She meets one of her mother's patients, Ian (Alex Wolff), a teen who wears a thick jacket of affected angst but is genuinely troubled as well. He tries to warn Shannon off when she starts flirting, but the two are clearly heading for a serious connection, however doomed it may be.

If the third act holds our interest more firmly than the others, it's not only the excitement of seeing an actor cap her breakthrough year with a more substantial role than she had on Stranger Things or in Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood. There's also the pending mystery of how all this will tie together: We know by now that the hit-and-run Jeep is Jamie's; that he probably wasn't driving at the time; and that Shannon knows more than she'll say. But several possible explanations remain.

Moverman's script solves its puzzle satisfactorily. But the sharp capitalist critique that many critics responded to in Virzi's film hardly comes through here, despite the obvious connections between the film's title and the life extinguished at its outset. The dynamics of privilege, aspiration and control between these adults demonstrate nothing we don't already understand very well about money; and as a morality tale, the story lacks bite. As for the working-class man whose life ends onscreen but is never explored as generously as those of his well-off neighbors, well, presumably that's just the cost of doing business.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: Maven Pictures, Bert Marcus Film
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff, Betty Gabriel, Paul Sparks, Assif Mandvi
Director: Marc Meyers
Screenwriter: Oren Moverman
Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Oren Moverman, Bert Marcus, Matthew Stillman, Liev Schreiber
Executive producers: Peter Sobiloff, Joanna Plafsky, Jody Girgenti, Christopher Burch, Jon Wanzek, Fabrizio Donvito
Director of photography: Kat Westergaard
Production designer: Mary Lena Colston
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Editors: Tariq Anwar, Alex Hall
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook
Sales: UTA

97 minutes