Jada Pinkett Smith makes her feature debut as both a writer and director with The Human Contract, a deeply weird stab at a sort of humanistic erotic thriller, in which an emotionally stolid businessman becomes entangled with a seductive stranger.
Set in Los Angeles, the story centers on Julian Wright (Jason Clarke), a “brand management expert” at a company competing with another boutiqe agency for a $5 billion merger deal. Against this backdrop, and with his own divorce pending, Julian meets a mysterious, sultry woman, Michael Reed (Paz Vega), who challenges him with raised eyebrows, revealed legs and mock-philosophic banter, and by pressing him to reveal to her the entry code for his locked-up darkroom vault. Michael turns out to be not all that she first seems — she has an ill-tempered former lover, a husband who may or may not be aware of and OK with her philandering, and her own scarred past. When these facts lead to several very public incidents that threaten the potential of said mega-deal, it understandably worries Julian’s corporate lawyer pal, Larry (Idris Elba), and also complicates matters between Julian and his mother (Joanna Cassidy) and sister Rita (multi-hyphenate Smith), the latter of whom is suffering through an abusive relationship.
Excepting that the financial stakes of the underpinning plot device feel totally out of step with the times, Smith certainly sets up some interesting themes to explore, and has a smart sense of parallel construction. She seems drawn to the sort of jarring catharses that result from adult awakenings, when personal or professional upheavals require people to confront the fact that for perhaps too long they’ve been governed by complacency, and living out someone else’s vision (be it that of a family member or loved one, or just society in general) for them. Undoubtedly assisted by her husband Will Smith’s longstanding relationship with financier/distributor Sony, Smith surrounds herself with top-shelf below-the-line talent, and her exacting touch is evident in many of the film’s small details, extending on down to some of the bit player supporting roles. It’s also fantastically shot — for the most part in fairly straightforward fashion, but with a few twinkly embellishments during some nighttime sequences. As both a writer and director, though, Smith falls in love with too-long montages, overly precious cross-cutting and scenes that really shouldn’t be in the final cut; at 107 minutes, the film undeniably drags, particularly in trying to underscore Julian’s warped obsession with Michael.
Chiefly, though, The Human Contract‘s problems relate to its miscasting of the leads. First off, Clarke — who resembles Colm Meaney crossed with Patrick Wilson, if that hybrid offspring then lost a fight with a skateboard — simply doesn’t cut it in any way, shape or form as a corporate shark. Smith somewhat tries to get around this fact by pitching his disheveledness as in keeping with his particularly current harried state (“You look like shit,” a friend offers), but at his core Clarke just looks like a beady-eyed, period flick n’er-do-well, or the sort of chap who should be hired as the voiceover inspiration for some cartoon weasel bad guy. It certainly also doesn’t help matters that Clarke plays Julian as a hothead, and entirely lacking in self control. (In fact, with four separate and distinct punched items/people, one wonders if the movie should instead be called The Human Contact.)
Vega, meanwhile, is just much more effective in her native tongue, as in Julio Medem’s erotically charged Sex and Lucia, or in a role like Spanglish, where she’s playing a character whose unfamiliarity with English as her primary language is part of the point. Here, and damningly, she seems to recite some of her lines phonetically, and in general just comes across as a poor man’s Penelope Cruz, during the portion of Cruz’s career in which she was just starting to dabble in English roles. She’s especially in over her head since so much of Michael’s dialogue — from her initial pick-up conversation with Julian to a couple spitfire exchanges — are majorly dependent upon emotionally evocative or descriptive language.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with carved out interior spindles in an effort to cut down on plastic usage, The Human Contract comes to DVD presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, with English and French language 5.1 Dolby digital audio tracks that more than handle the title’s meager, conversationally rooted aural requirements. Subtitles are also available in the aforementioned languages. Supplemental extras consist of a feature-length audio commentary track with Smith and cinematographer Darren Genet, a four-minute chat — dramatically intercut with manipulated film stills and footage — in which cast and crew weigh in with thoughts on the movie’s title, and a fairly solid, 21-minute making-of featurette in which Smith talks about life’s “buried jewels” existing in the places we typically don’t want to go. A bit coolly oversimplifying, this bit of philosophizing from the perch of a Bel-Air estate, but point taken nonetheless, because Smith comes across as genuine. Previews for additional Sony home video titles are also included. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) C+ (Disc)