‘Human Capital’ Fails to Fully Capitalize on Its Humanity (TIFF 2019)

Human Capital, which premiered at TIFF this week, is the fifth film from director Marc Meyers, responsible for the well-received My Friend Dahmer that made the festival rounds several years ago. Human Capital is a remake of an Italian movie, loosely based on a Stephen Amidon novel, and focuses on the lives of two families and those connected to them, detailing the events of several days from different perspectives until it focusses on a car accident and its aftermath.

The overlapping narratives open with Drew (Liev Schreiber), a real estate agent with a pregnant wife, Ronnie (Betty Gabriel), and a recalcitrant teenage daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke). Shannon is dating Jamie (Fred Hechinger), the eldest son of Carrie (Marisa Tomei) and Quint (Peter Sarsgaard), a former horror film actress and her hedge-fund broker husband. Drew begs Quint to let him invest in the hedge fund and winds up borrowing three hundred thousand dollars from a local bank to finance his investment, despite having a failing business and two children on the way. Meanwhile, Carrie is attempting to convince her husband to invest in a local cinema that she wants to transform into an art center, while Shannon meets and falls for Ian (Alex Wolff), a troubled former drug dealer. The narratives close in on each other, bringing each character into involvement with the event that opens the film: a hit and run accident that puts a waiter in a coma.

Human Capital’s overlapping structure is hardly unique, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Rather it’s a question of what the film does with those narratives, and whether the content justifies the split-up structure. The performances are excellent across the board—though, amazingly, the men have the most limited and one-note roles. Sarsgaard is in his usual charming creep mode and he plays it well (as he always does), but Quint is the only main character who doesn’t get a split narrative. An arc is hinted at—he departs for New York at one point and comes back desperate and frightened—but is never followed through on. This has the effect of leaving him as mostly the film’s villain, a vague figure who terrifies his son, condescends to his wife, and doesn’t much care who he ruins. Schreiber, despite opening the film, likewise receives relatively short shrift, setting up the conflict without doing much more.

The two most powerful narrative arcs belong to Carrie and Shannon, helped along by Tomei’s undoubted ability to combine pathos with self-centeredness, and Hawke’s rising stardom. As the story builds to its fairly inevitable conclusion, they’re revealed as characters pushed along by the needs of men; their attempts at resistance and self-actualization turn to merely shifting their allegiances to other, often more damaging men. If anything, Human Capital becomes, almost in spite in itself, a story about the underclasses exploited by powerful people—anyone who is not a straight white (rich) man comes to grief, or is forced to support the fears and anxieties of straight white men.

The strong performances do not entirely rescue Human Capital, however, which is a good film that might have been a much better one. The narrative device is ultimately simplistic (nothing wrong with that) that doesn’t wind up justifying itself by creating increased narrative tension (something wrong with that). It’s certainly hard to care about the trials of exceptionally rich white people, but the film’s insistence on emphasizing its other characters undercut this element, at least to a degree. However, by not offering any further perspective on Quint or some of the minor characters, including the injured waiter, it minimizes the story’s effect on the audience, as though what happens to them all just sort of…happens, simply the nature of market forces and not really anyone’s fault. Other than in the elements of Shannon’s arc—which spends a little too much time on rebellious teenage love—there’s little moral quandary for the characters: they do what they do because that’s what people like them do, and what happens to them happens because that’s how things happen.

Human Capital is made by its performances, but its performances expose how banal the structure and plot are at base. It’s far from a failure, but there’s something missing to elevate beyond an entertaining, well-directed film about relatively unpleasant rich people. It’s hard to care about characters driven by, well, nothing. This cast gives it their all, but they really deserved better.

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