Review: ‘Human Capital,’ starring Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff and Fred Hechinger

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liev Schreiber in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Human Capital”

Directed by Marc Meyers

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Human Capital” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and the upper-class.

Culture Clash: A hit-and-run car accident and financial pressures affect the lives of two families from different socioeconomic classes.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful dramas and who won’t mind that the story is told in a non-chronological manner.

Alex Wolff and Maya Hawke in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The tightly wound dramatic film “Human Capital” shows what happens when desperate people do desperate things and how they deal with the ethical dilemmas they face in the process. Based on Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel “Human Capital” (which was adapted into the 2014 Italian film “Il Capitale Umano”), this American movie version begins with the incident that is at the center of the turmoil in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed suburb in upstate New York.

While riding his bicycle home from work one night, a restaurant waiter is suddenly stuck by a speeding Jeep Wrangler in a hit-and-run-accident. The Jeep Wrangler briefly stops and the unseen driver does not get out of the car before speeding off. Observant viewers can immediately notice some clues (including the make and model of the car), but even then it’s best not to assume that these clues are proof of who the perpetrator really is.

The mystery unfolds in layers, as the three acts in the story are each told from the perspective of three of the main characters: financially desperate real-estate broker Drew Hagel (played by Liev Schreiber), rich housewife Carrie Manning (played by Marisa Tomei) and high-school student Shannon Dark (played by Maya Hakwe), who is Drew’s daughter from his first marriage. (Shannon took her mother’s maiden name after her parents got divorced.) All of them are or will be connected to the hit-and-run accident in some way.

Drew’s perspective is told first. He’s first seen on screen with Shannon, as he drives her to the home of her new boyfriend Jamie Manning (played by Fred Hechinger), who is the son of a wealthy hedge-fund mogul named Quint Manning (played by Peter Sarsgaard). While Drew marvels at the Manning family’s large estate, Shannon acts like she’s not impressed by the family’s wealth and she looks like she just hopes that her father doesn’t embarrass her when he drops her off at the home.

Drew first meets Quint’s wife Carrie. In the space of a few minutes, Drew tells Carrie that he owns his own real-estate company, he and his first wife (Shannon’s mother) did not have friendly divorce, and he’s now married to a woman whom Drew calls “his trophy wife.” These are indications that Drew wants to give the impression that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

As Drew is getting ready to leave, he meets Quint, when Quint asks Drew to join him in a game of doubles tennis on the mansion’s tennis court. After the game, Drew asks Quint if he’s taking any more investors in his hedge fund WNV. Quint tells Drew that the only new investors he’ll accept are family and friends. But since they’ve gotten along so well in their short time together, Quint tells Drew that the minimum investment is $300,000.

Drew can get the money, but only through borrowing via home equity at a fairly high interest rate. Drew discusses the matter with his business manager Andy (played by James Waterston), who advises him against the deal. It’s a risky move because Drew’s real-estate business (he’s the only employee) hasn’t been doing well, but he’s too embarrassed to admit his financial problems to anyone other than Andy. Drew seems determined to impress Quint, with the hopes of making a profit from the investment, so Drew ignores Andy’s advice and goes through with the investment deal by doing something illegal.

Drew doesn’t tell his current wife Ronnie (played by Betty Gabriel) about this deal. But she’s got news for him: After having multiple miscarriages in the past, she’s now pregnant with twins. Ronnie is a therapist, but her salary wouldn’t be enough to cover the financial losses if Drew’s investment turns out to be a bad decision. Needless to say, the impending birth of the children puts even more financial pressure on Drew.

Meanwhile, the movie’s second act focuses on the perspective of Quint’s wife Carrie. Viewers find out that she’s interested in buying a run-down performing-arts theater in the area and turning it into a cultural center for movie screenings, stage performances and other events. But first, she needs her husband Quint’s money, and she convinces him to buy the theater for their nonprofit foundation.

One of the people on the foundation board is a professor (played by Paul Sparks), who recognizes Carrie as a former actress who used to do horror movies. When he’s alone with Carrie, he flirts with her and confesses that he’s a fan of her work. He also mentions that if the theater needs an artistic director, he’d like to be considered for the position.

During a lunch appointment with him, Carrie confesses that her marriage has had some problems, including Quint having “three affairs in 20 years.” When the professor asks Carrie if she’s ever cheated on Quint, her response is that she’s thought about it many times, but never actually did it. When Quint finds out about the lunch, he tells Carrie about a decision he made about the theater. You can see where this is headed, so it comes no surprise at what happens next.

The third and final act of the story is told from Shannon’s perspective. Viewers find out that she’s a lot more angst-ridden than she first appeared in the other parts of the story. She’s desperate for love and attention outside of her family, but hides that desperation behind a façade of appearing emotionally distant and insolent. While visiting her stepmother Ronnie at Ronnie’s job, Shannon is in the waiting area and meets another teenager named Ian, who is one Ronnie’s patients. They exchange some sarcastic banter, but it’s obvious that they’re attracted to one another.

There’s too much spoiler information to talk about what happens during other parts of the movie, but it’s enough to say that there are several flashbacks that revolve around what happened the night of a gala event where Jamie’s elite private school gave a prestigious award to one of its students. Seated at the same table at the event were Quint, Carrie, Jamie, Quint’s obnoxious lawyer Godeep (played by Aasif Mandvi), Godeep’s wife (played by Christiane Seidel), Shannon, Ronnie and Drew.

The American version of “Human Capital” (directed by  Marc Meyers) is not as stylishly filmed as director Paolo Virzì’s Italian version. While the Italian version had a sleek, minimalistic look to its production design and cinematography, the American version opts for a grittier, more cluttered look. The American version of the movie is a straightforward mystery thriller, while the Italian version seemed to have more to say about the dark sides of ambitious social climbing.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (2009’s “The Messenger”) does a capable job with the American version of the “Human Capital” screenplay, which certainly ramps up the “whodunit” tension throughout the film. However, the film’s middle section that’s shown from Carrie’s perspective really doesn’t add much to the story, compared to the beginning and ending to the film.

One character in particular has a backstory that is mentioned but never seen in the movie. It would have been interesting to explore more of this person’s history. However, enough of this person’s background is revealed to explain why this person does an extreme act toward the end of the film. All of the actors do a very good job with their roles, but Hawke’s Shannon character is probably the hardest one to pull off because her character is the least predictable.

For people who want to know who committed the hit-and-run, the movie does end up showing the entire set of circumstances that led up to the hit-and-run, who was responsible, and what happened afterward. However, the American version of “Human Capital” doesn’t fully address some of the illegal acts that certain characters committed in the movie that might or might nor be related to the hit-and-run crime. In other words, some loose ends are tied up, but not all.

Vertical Entertainment released “Human Capital” on DirecTV on February 20, 2020, and on VOD on March 20, 2020.