Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review: "Human Capital"

"Human Capital" is a tale of leverage -- the invisible lines of influence and control we all have exerted upon us by others, and in turn use to manipulate people to our ends. It's a story of weaklings and bullies, lovers and enemies, and how quickly these roles can shift.

In an unnamed New York City wealthy suburb, two families are loosely joined by their children. Liev Schreiber is Drew, a middle-aged real estate broker looking for a piece of the better life. His teen daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), is dating Jamie (Fred Hechinger), the son of a major hedge fund tycoon. As the story opens, Drew offers to drop Shannon off at her boyfriend's house, but he has ulterior motives.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Quint Manning, the other father, with a pitch-perfect mix of arrogance and dismissive contempt. He invites Drew to play tennis with him, and he already seems to know it's a set-up to ask about investing in his hot new venture. It's a casual sort of neighborly corruption.

To Quint, everything and every person has a price tag on them.

Drew borrows the $300,000 to get in on the hedge fund (at the lowest "friends and family" entry) and falsifies his financial paperwork. Meanwhile, his younger wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel), an idealistic therapist, has just learned she is pregnant. Drew, who used to have a problem with gambling, embraces the possibilities while pushing down the fear about the consequences -- especially when the deal starts to go south.

An accident on the road happens -- a car sideswipes a cyclist in the middle of the night, then drives on. Who was driving? What happened to the man on the bicycle? Will anyone be held to account in this world where seemingly sings go punished?

The story, based on the novel by Stephen Amidon and adapted by Oren Moverman, keeps shifting perspectives and gears on us. We think it'll be Drew's story, but then the movie rewinds and we see some of the same things from another point of view, and then another. It all builds to a confrontation that is inevitable but still remains surprising.

Director Marc Meyers ("My Friend Dahmer") keeps the pieces of the puzzle constantly moving, introducing new ones and setting aside others we thought would be pivotal. The novel was previously adapted into an Italian movie of the same name.

Marisa Tomei plays Carrie, Quint's wife and Jamie's mother, a kept woman who enjoys her immense privilege. Drew first spots her through a window in the opening scene, and we suspect they might have a romantic liaison. But their first meeting is awkward and off-putting, and seems to close the door on that.

Carrie has an idea to buy and restore a magnificent cinema in the nearby city, and Quint is content to indulge his wife's latest whim. She forms a board and sets about with the project, and dallies with her hand-picked artistic director (Paul Sparks), a professor who is as mesmerized by her as Quint is with his money.

The story turns again to Shannon, who mutually splits with Jamie while maintaining the pretense of their continued relationship in order to appease their parents. She is intrigued by Ian (an excellent Alex Wolff), one of Ronnie's patients who is a minor local celebrity for his drug-dealing. Shannon takes up with the dour young man, at first to fracture her goody-goody image but then for deeper reasons.

Ian tells her upfront that he is a broken person, and even seductively vows that he will never love her. But we'll see.

Things go from there. Even with its "Roshomon"-like structure, "Human Capital" is less interested in the twists of the storyline than the impact they have on the very human figures caught in the web of intrigue.

The cast is pretty uniformly terrific, with Hawke and Wolff standing out in particular. Their star-crossed relationship is the beating heart of the movie, the real romance hiding behind a fake one.

We all tell lies, and are lied to. It's one thing to betray another but quite another to be dishonest with yourself. Here's a tense, observant film that explores the authenticity of our own hearts.

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