Movie Review: Transactions get messy when “Human Capital” is involved

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In film and fiction, the phrase “narrative thread” is commonly used to describe the way pieces of the plot are woven together. “Human Capital” is a smart, well-cast drama that lets us see its threads as they bend back and forth on the loom, its mystery unraveling as they do.

It’s about affluence and “gambling” in the markets, snobbery and the myriad mental strains that hammer teenagers, even those rich enough to attend a private school.

That’s the connecting thread in Oren Moverman’s screenplay, based on a Stephen Amidon novel previously adapted into an Italian film back in 2013. Rich parents of students at suburban New York’s exclusive Buchman Academy gather for a fund-raising dinner. A waiter at the restaurant serving that dinner is hit, on his bicycle, on his way home. The script returns us to that dinner several times, via the characters and the threads of their story.

Liev Schreiber is Drew Hagel, a gauche real estate agent with a rebellious daughter (Maya Hawke) at that school and at that dinner. Drew is the sort that blurts his whole story — or too much of it — when he meets the mother (Marisa Tomei) of the boy daughter Shannon is dating.

No, Shannon’s mother doesn’t live here. “I remarried…much younger woman. Kind of a ‘trophy’ thing.”

Carrie (Tomei) gets out of that conversation in a hurry. But what Drew really wants to do is meet her husband, the high-flying and mysterious Quint (Peter Sarsgaard), who runs a hedge fund.

“We move invisible money through invisible markets at invisible speeds guided by invisible hands with invisible oversight,” Quint purrs.

Want to invest? Sure!

That entanglement has legal and moral implications, as well as financial ones. Drew used to have a gambling problem. Maybe he’s moved on from that to SEC filing shortcuts. But he’s still got a whiff of “desperate hustler” about him. Ronnie, the “trophy” wife (Betty Gabriel) may be put off by the glib arrogance of “this crowd,” especially Quint’s vulpine lawyer/board member (Aasif Mandvi, turning up the “vile”). But Drew NEEDS this.

The daughter and her boyfriend (Fred Hechinger), Ronnie’s profession and one client in particular (Alex Wolff) and Carrie’s marriage to Quint, her past and her big dream all are unwound in threads of the story that work their way back to that banquet, that accident and its potential repercussions.

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In a business that rarely has room for more that one or two top flight “name” screenwriters, Moverman’s work stands apart, even when he’s adapting a novel. He made his mark by writing and directing the moving drama of soldiers on Casualty Notification duty, “The Messenger.” Scripts like “Rampart,” “Love & Mercy” and “The Dinner” show his gift for plot, beautifully-crafted scenes and zinging dialogue.

An argument between Carrie and Quint is filled with verbal darts that draw blood.

“Why don’t you put the ‘street girl’ back in the wine bottle!”

“Better start looking for your next wife!”

“Oh, I’m on it!”

Few actors working today carry the sinister, snooty menace Sarsgaard can convey when he’s a mind to. Tomei gets a moment or two of fury and fear, Schreiber is convincingly low-class and desperate and young Hawke (“Stranger Things”), the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, makes Shannon dazzlingly sullen, spoiled and impulsive.

There are missteps, threads that seems to clash with everything that’s woven around them. But Moverman and director Marc Meyers (“My Friend Dahmer”) keep that loom weaving, their story moving forward and their movie about the sometimes discounted value of “Human Capital” perfectly engrossing, from start to finish.

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MPAA Rating: TV-14, adult situations, alcohol abuse, profanity, violence

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Betty Gabriel, Maya Hawke, Aasif Mandi and Alex Wolff.

Credits: Directed by Marc Meyers, script by Oren Moverman based on a Stephen Amidon novel. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:38

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