Bicycling home from work at a fundraising dinner, a waiter is struck by a car on a dark stretch of road. That's the catalyst for 'Human Capital', an ambitious drama from Marc Meyers, director of 'My Friend Dahmer'. The tendrils of the plot then unfurl, almost in a 'Rashomon'-like fashion, rewinding to a moment before the initial event, when all the main characters meet for the first time.
Based on a novel by Stephen Amidon and the 2013 Italian film 'Il Capital Unman', Oren Moverman's script moves back and forth, expanding from the hit-and-run to examine three families on a diverse economic and social spectrum. As their lives intersect, Moverman can repeat encounters and scenes from different angles.
The framework gives the filmmakers the freedom to cover a lot of territory. Like realtor Drew Hegel (Liev Schreiber, 'A Rainy Day in New York', 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'), on his second marriage and struggling with debt. He's an inveterate gambler with twins on the way who uses his teen daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke, 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood', 'Ladyworld') to wangle a meeting with hedge fund mogul Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard, 'Mr. Jones', 'Jackie'), setting in motion a financial deal that casts him way out of his depth.
One bad choice leads to another, as Drew fakes his income on a financial filing, then takes out a loan he can't repay. He also can't communicate with Shannon, who disappears with her friend Jamie Manning (Fred Hechinger), and is hard-pressed to deal with his wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel, 'Upgrade', 'Get Out'), a therapist who announces that she's pregnant.
No one in 'Human Capital' can be honest, least of all Carrie Manning (Marisa Tomei, 'The King of Staten Island', 'Spider-Man: Far From Home'), Quint's wife. A former actress in low-budget horror films, she now fills her days shopping aimlessly, crying in the back seat of her limo, and trying to find meaning by turning a derelict movie theatre into an arts centre. That effort leads to a betrayal by her husband and his lawyer, a furtive affair with a college professor, and conflict with Jamie.
Despite the film's clear intentions to treat its characters in a realistic, sympathetic way, 'Human Capital' feels less like Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Babel' and more like Paul Haggis' 'Crash'.
Shannon has her own problems, including lingering resentment of her estranged mother, discovering that her boyfriend has his own identity issues, and an encounter with Ian Warfield (Alex Wolff, 'Hereditary'), one of Ronnie's patients. Turns out Ian's done time for drugs in a reform school, and has been ordered to see Ronnie for what he calls violent fantasies.
Despite the film's clear intentions to treat its characters in a realistic, sympathetic way, 'Human Capital' feels less like Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Babel' and more like Paul Haggis' 'Crash'. Similarly, Meyers' is heavy-handed and 'Human Capital' seems slightly inert as a result.
However, the stellar cast makes just about every role interesting: Tomei adds more nuance to Carrie than you would expect, Sarsgaard's smarmy conceit as Quint is first-rate, and Schreiber is a big man who captures his character's smallness.
The highlight is the charismatic Maya Hawke, appearing here after an attention-grabbing part in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'. It takes time for the movie to focus on Shannon's story; when it does, everything starts to click. Hawke's scenes with Alex Wolff are amusing at first, before sliding into deeply emotional moments of soul-baring truth. As Ian's life takes a tragic turn, all the plot machinations and narrative tricks start to make sense.
An engrossing mystery, 'Human Capital' deserves credit for trying to deal with issues that affect adults, with the talented cast and carefully modulated performances as considerable bonuses.