“Human Capital” has returned home in a sense, in that American novelist Stephen Amidon’s 2004 book was made into a very well-received Italian film by Paolo Virzi in 2013, and now Marc Meyers’ U.S. feature is based on both prior incarnations. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work again in what is, after all, its original setting. Yet as with the recent stateside do-overs of “After the Wedding” and “Gloria,” this is another remake probably best enjoyed by those unfamiliar with its predecessor, which remains more incisive and memorable. This “Capital” succeeds as a well-acted crisscrosser of a melodrama between two awkwardly entangled families in upstate New York. Where it falls well short is in attaining the level of biting social commentary Virzi drew from the same material.
The first thing we see here is a restaurant worker bicycling home from work, only to be sideswiped by an SUV on a dark country road and left for dead. It takes some time before we get back to that incident, however, as the focus immediately shifts to the financial woes of real estate agent Drew (Liev Schreiber), who’s a bit stretched — and soon to be more so, once he learns that his therapist second wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel) is expecting twins.
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But a lucky break appears to fall in his lap when he drops off teenage daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke of “Stranger Things”) at her boyfriend’s manse. Fellow high schooler Jamie (Fred Hechinger) happens to be the son of superstar venture capitalist Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard), who happens to need a tennis partner at that moment. Having nearly gone pro in his youth, Drew passes muster, and doesn’t miss the chance to propose getting in on Quint’s much-trumpeted latest hedge fund.
Trouble is, this is the kind of enterprise devised by already rich people to further enrich one another. While assuring Quint otherwise, Drew doesn’t have the ready cash to make even the minimum required contribution of $300,000. But convinced he’s onto a “sure thing,” he falsifies his finances to get a high-interest loan. This could turn out to be a very bad idea — and needless to say, it does.
As this noose of his own making tightens around Drew’s neck, at the approximately one-third point certain events start being retold from a different perspective, that of Quint’s wife, Carrie (Marisa Tomei). A former actress of no particular renown, she’s a dissatisfied trophy wife, with little to do save run interference between her only child, Jamie, and his demanding father. She spies an opportunity for fulfillment in the form of a dilapidated but still impressive old art deco theater in their upstate town. With hubby’s money, could she acquire it, oversee a restoration, then chair the board for a new community arts center? It seems possible — until that hedge fund tanks, which proves bad news for all involved.
The events are related a third and final time from the viewpoint of Shannon, a somewhat bratty, sullen looker still resentful over her mother’s long-ago abandonment and Ronnie’s arrival. The hit-and-run mishap now takes center stage as the core plot mystery. Police have figured out the bicyclist was injured by Jamie’s car — but who was driving? Was it the rich kid, drunk after a party? Newly ex-girlfriend Shannon, whom he called for a ride? Or Ian (Alex Wolff of “Hereditary”), her new beau, who not incidentally is a disturbed patient of her stepmother’s?
Oren Moverman’s typically skillful screenplay etches these relationships and conflicts with brisk economy, and Meyers (whose last film “My Friend Dahmer” impressively managed a trickier tonal challenge) plays them out effectively enough, thanks in large part to his strong cast. But this time around, “Human Capital” feels less ingenious than a bit gimmicky, less a set of sharp if schematic collisions between oppositional interests than an overloaded pile of crises á la “Crash.” The class barriers that felt formidable in the Italian film are less potent in this American context, robbing the story of some thematic heft.
In the end, this incarnation comes off as an intelligent potboiler, no more or less, its convoluted narrative rigging not leading to any particular sense of meaning. The lack of some framing thesis, however vague, hurts because what we’re left with is just the human factor — and these largely dislikable characters aren’t easy to root for.
Nonetheless, the solid performances and assured packaging make this a reasonably engrossing tale set in a convincingly upscale burg where some less-prosperous citizens are trying not to make their anxiety too obvious. If the typical screen bedroom-community drama of half a century ago was about the disillusioning aspects of affluence, “Human Capital” is just as relevant in its reflection of today’s reality. Its middle-class denizens aren’t bored — they’re too busy hanging on for dear life.