"I took economics, and I'd explain it to you … but I flunked that course," jokes comedian Lewis Black in his 2004 stand-up special "Black on Broadway." "It's not my fault. They taught it at 8 o'clock in the morning. And there is absolutely nothing that you can learn out of one bloodshot eye. After I flunked the first two tests, I grabbed the professor by the throat and I said, ‘Why are you teaching this sh*t at this ungodly hour? Are you trying to keep this stuff a secret?’"
The reality is you could teach economics at high noon and hook every student up to an IV of two parts Red Bull to one part Pixy Stix dust, and the class would still be dreaming and drooling before the teacher hit slide one on the day’s PowerPoint. Some subjects are just doomed to be drier than a saltine cracker recapping the previous evening’s C-SPAN broadcast from the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats … normally. Thankfully for Mr. Black and the 99.9 percent of us who snored our way through freshman econ, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is a welcome oxymoron: an entertaining economics lecture.
Adapted from Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, director Justin Pemberton’s slick doc plays like a lively SparkNotes speed-read through the up-and-down history of economic inequality, wealth accumulation, unrest and capitalism across Western civilization, going all the way back to the 18th century and the fiefdom-like control the rich exerted on the poor. With the help of a cast of talking heads, including often Piketty himself, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" traces the political tug-of-war between the two economic strata – from revolutions both French and industrial to the World Wars’ effects on taxation to the development of a true middle class and the deregulations of the past several decades, leading to an ever-growing gap between those with immense wealth accumulating while contributing little and the rest left behind as the ladder rungs of society become too far apart to climb.
Piketty’s fear? That, according to history, when inequality grows, either a redistribution of wealth helps balance the society and encourage innovation and upward mobility, or the lower classes are pitted against one another based on race or other divisions to keep them violently distracted. Worst of all, as another expert ominously foretells, with wealth accumulating more wealth by just sitting around empty or offshore and more industries moving to automated labor, humans could go the way of horses: once a key cog of the economy, now rendered unnecessary.
Sure, that final point lands on the dramatically dystopian side, as the doc itself admits, but otherwise "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" argues through capitalism’s long, winding and currently pothole-ridden road smartly, thoroughly and at an engaging level – whether parsing through 300-plus years of global economics or finding interesting ways society and psychology changes with money. One aside discusses how fashion and Christmas evolved into economy drivers, while one of the most fascinating segments digs into a study involving Monopoly, showing how people assume wealth equals to worth – even when they know that the game is rigged in their favor for no reason other than luck. By the time the doc delivers Piketty’s solution –progressive wealth taxes – even Adam Smith might be persuaded (though, as one expert notes, Smith would likely still have his mouth on the floor trying to grasp our global and technology-driven version of capitalism).
The most surprising discovery during the doc, though: Economic history theory can be … fun?
Energetic, entertaining and stylish are rarely words used to describe an econ lecture, but they all apply to "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Pemberton livens up this dangerously dense material and its typically bland talking head format with plentiful flashy scrapbook graphics, sharply edited kaleidoscopic montages, compelling visuals and ominous shots of glossy cities on the brink. Add in Jean-Benoit Dunckel’s drumming, propulsive score adding to the growing tension of Piketty’s warnings, and the result is a polished doc that’s often as compelling to the eye and heart as it is the brain.
That being said, Pemberton’s slick approach often crosses the line from hip relatable professor into "hello fellow kids" mode, sitting in its chair backwards and trying to make TikTok references. Or, in the case of "Capital," movie and TV references, presented here as clips littering the film, ranging from "The Tale of Two Cities" to "Family Guy" to "The Simpsons" and, predictably, "Wall Street." At its worst, it forces you watch part of Tom Hooper’s "Les Mis." (Plus, any movie that tries use the forgotten Mattt Damon sci-fi movie "Elysium" to punctuate a serious climactic point must be docked a half-star. It’s the law.) But even at its best, the approach adds nothing beyond some maybe amusing but wholly unnecessary filler, taking up space that could be better spent letting the experts further elaborate and back up their ideas rather than cutting to a poppy distraction, as if the film’s afraid you’re going to start dozing off.
Even the cool montages start to get tedious near the end of its 103-minute running time, the on-the-nose soundtrack cues over footage of fancy yachts and properties going from engaging to eye-rolling. What started as slick threatens to make the film feel shallow, undercutting its well-argued points and putting cool ahead of the content.
Still, even with those stumbles, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" mostly pulls off its tightrope act balancing between style and substance, enlightening and entertaining the audience. It may be imperfect, but Pemberton's doc still pulls off the impossible: It’s perhaps the first economics lecture you’ll actually enjoy – and, best of all for our friend Mr. Black, it doesn’t start at 8 in the morning.
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century": **1/2 out of ****
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is currently available on Milwaukee Film's Sofa Cinema virtual movie platform.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.