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Human Contract, The

Sony Pictures // R // June 30, 2009
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Ah, the tastes of men and women. I'm reminded of the phrase: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." The Human Contract is written and directed by actress Jada Pinkett Smith, and it features all the things that the novels at Walgreens would seem to suggest women want in their sexual thrillers: cold, rich, wine-drinking businessmen who emerge from their shells as they're overwhelmed with illicit passion for a mysterious woman. I'm not a woman, and I can only speak for myself, but frankly none of these things are particularly interesting to me, and the final product merely left me to wonder how a movie intended to be so rich with erotic tension could be so resoundingly boring.

Jason Clarke plays Julian (a trashy-novel name if I've ever heard one), who works for an upscale advertising firm. He's going through a divorce, and has unspoken family issues involving his mother Rose (Joanna Cassidy) and his sister Rita (Smith herself). One day, waiting in a bar for his girlfriend to show up, he meets Michael (Paz Vega), and the two strike up a conversation. She takes a liking to Julian, and they begin pursuing one another, but he's reluctant to commit and angered when he discovers that Michael is married and in an open relationship. Michael doesn't believe in marriage and romance as a "human contract", and says that passion should be free to happen whenever and wherever the mood strikes, but Julian finds it hard not to want Michael all to himself.

Julian and Michael's romance is meant to be passionate and sensual, but Jason Clarke and Paz Vega are unable to elicit any sort of chemistry with one another. As a director, Smith takes an interesting tactic of jumping right into things: we open at a bar where Julian and Michael are already starting their first conversation, without any setup or preamble. Yet instead of immersing us into their relationship in a unique way, the movie ends up feeling disconnected from both characters. Even with exposition later in the film, we never feel like we've gotten to know either of our leads as much as they've been explained to us, and neither performer brings enough spark to the role to make up for the awkward introduction.

The film contains several subplots, involving Rita's abusive ex-husband, Julian's repressed aggression due to a mysterious childhood memory and a potential business deal at Julian's company. Admittedly, the only thing less dramatically interesting to me than the should-we-or-shouldn't-we emotional hills and valleys of an illicit love story is family infighting drama, but aside from that, these elements take too long to tell the audience anything significant about Julian and why he is the way he is. For the first two-thirds (if not three-fourths) of the film, they're just obstacles for Julian to try to deal with on top of his relationship with Michael rather than enlightening, and they provide the movie with characters and plot threads that feel adrift from the rest of the movie. Idris Elba (and Ted Danson as well, for that matter) is wasted in a role that mainly consists of being mad at Julian for endangering the business deal. There's a locked darkroom in Julian's apartment, and Michael wants to know the door's combination. It's a metaphor for Julian's inability to open up, but it only has surface value because we don't see Julian inside the darkroom or get a sense of what it is about himself he's guarding or protecting until the very end. Worst of all are a few baffling mood swings in Julian's attitude, including two consecutive scenes in which he gifts Michael with several gigantic vases of flowers, then has security throw her out of his building without speaking to her when she shows up to thank him.

As for Smith's overall direction, it's reasonably self-assured and even-handed, but her passable technique and even a more interesting third act (with some actual dramatic meat on its bones) aren't enough to keep The Human Contract interesting. Normally, I might have been willing to admit that a stylish, intelligent movie like this might not ring true for me purely on the basis of personal taste, but the lack of spark is an additional factor holding the movie back. It's the perfect movie for premium cable or even a channel like TNT: anyone who's looking to watch a movie like this can tune into the bits that ring true to them, and armchair edit the rest.

The Human Contract comes in one of the dreaded Eco-Box cases, with stylish cover art on the front. The back cover doesn't fare as well -- the special features seem tiny and awkwardly crammed onto the case in a poor-looking font, while one pale photograph occupies most of the real estate. No insert was included, and the disc art mimics the front cover.

The Video
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation on the disc is rock-solid. Fine detail seems strong, the colors are vivid, and I didn't notice any ringing or edge enhancement. My only minor complaint is that it has that faint sheen of gray I always see on new Sony titles, as if someone played with the brightness knob on the TV or you were watching the movie through a faintly tinted window.

The Audio
English Dolby Digital 5.1 is also solid. There are a lot of classy bars, restaurants, parties and crowds in the film, and there's almost always some directional ambience to go with them. Being an intimate movie, this isn't the kind of movie that's going to light up your sound system, but the mix was still effectively immersive. French 5.1 is also included, along with English and French subtitles.

The Extras
Jada Pinkett Smith and cinematographer Darren Genet provide a loose, friendly audio commentary over the film. The good: unlike some commentators, Jada and Darren don't seem to have come with any pre-planned topics of conversation, which gives their discussion an off-the-cuff feeling as they discuss "handsome Ted Danson", being spooked in graveyards and Julian's fractured psyche. The bad: sometimes they have to watch the screen for something to chat about, peppering the track with lots of brief gaps. Not the most informative track I've ever heard, but it's a reasonably entertaining listen in which listeners will become familiar with the sound of Smith snickering.

Two featurettes follow. "The Human Experience" (21:34) is the standard making-of piece, and it's a good overview of the movie's production and development. As with most DVD featurettes, there's a reliance on film clips, but overall, the cast and crew seem excited and invested in the movie, which is a refreshing change of pace even if I didn't like the movie itself. At first, it's a little confusing as to why the other featurette, "Roll of Film" (4:01), is separated from the main documentary, but it basically ends up being the cast and crew talking about what they feel the title means to them.

Automatic trailers for Fragments, The Informers, Dark Streets and Fireflies in the Garden run when you put in the disc, and a menu can be accessed from the Special Features that contains the same trailers, plus spots for Blu-Ray Disc is High Definition!, Obsessed, What Goes Up, Assassination of a High School President, Seven Pounds, Vinyan, The Lodger, Elegy, What Doesn't Kill You, Nothing But the Truth, "The Shield" Seasons 1-7, Lakeview Terrace and The International. Phew. No trailer for The Human Contract is included.

Not all of The Human Contract is a wasted experience, but the first 65 to 70 minutes of the movie were a slow, tough slog for me. I can't quite bring myself to recommend renting it, but if you're curious, skip it until it pops up on HBO or something.

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