Most of us first heard the term “human capital” in discussions of financial settlements made to the families of those killed in the 9-11 attacks. It’s a bland term for a painful calculation, the monetary value of a life. The family of a victim who had high earning expectations would receive more from insurance companies than the family of, say, a janitor. It’s a controversial subject because it attempts to quantify something unquantifiable, and because it forces us to admit that, in the supposedly classless United States, some lives are “worth” more than others.
Human Capital is based on an American novel of that title by Stephen Amidon, by way of a well-received Italian film made in 2015. (Both are credited.) Three characters are drawn together in a story that opens with an accident on a nighttime road in upstate New York. A restaurant worker, biking home after a long shift catering a ritzy affair, is run off the road and critically injured by an SUV. Who is responsible?
Drew (Liev Schreiber) is a real-estate broker with a failing business and a pregnant wife. His teenage daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke) is dating the son of a hedge fund manager Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard). Drew uses this connection to wheedle an invitation to join the latest offering, foolishly putting his family’s future on the line.
Carrie (Marisa Tomei) is Manning’s trophy wife. She tries to lend meaning to her empty life by heading a campaign to renovate a local theater, unaware that her husband’s fund is on the verge of collapsing. Shannon has her own secrets, one of which is the key to the tragedy that opens the film.
The Italian film was structured in four acts, one for each of the main characters over a period of six months and a concluding one tying them all together. This remake compresses the same events into what feels like a time span of several days, which oddly takes away some of the story’s urgency. And the ending doesn’t pack the punch it should, leaving several of the stories insufficiently resolved (the Italian film was more willing to take aim at class differences). But if it doesn’t strike the nerve it should have, Human Capital features strong work from an exceptional cast, especially Schreiber, Tomei and Sarsgaard.