Advertising executive Julian Wright (Jason Clarke) has a failed marriage, troubled family life and an important business deal on the line. So it is no wonder he is so tightly wound. Nevertheless, Julian finds himself unable to resist the seductive, uninhibited Michael (Paz Vega) who opens the door to a more free-spirited way of life. Their tumultous affair takes its toll on Julian's job while he also discovers Michael is hiding more than a few secrets.
On the surface the writing and directorial debut of actress Jada Pinkett Smith revives the classic corporate themed yuppie-in-peril erotic thriller so prominent throughout the Eighties and Nineties: e.g. Fatal Attraction (1987), Disclosure (1996) or basically anything starring Michael Douglas. Fans of scintillating Spanish star Paz Vega will no doubt relish the abundant scenes where she slinks around in skimpy designer lingerie. Meanwhile the glossy, kinky sex scenes carry elements of that po-faced, slightly ridiculous sado-erotic philosophy underlining the DTV output of Zalman King, stylishly staged and photographed in a manner that titillates without seeming tawdry. However, the tone and underlining ambitions of the film are significantly closer to the kind of intelligent, provocative eroticism more commonly found among the European art-house circuit.
In erotic thrillers sex leads men down a destructive path. However, while Michael is a troubled personality, she is no spider-woman and Julian is no hapless whitebread hero ensared in her web. When Michael strips off she reveals as much about her emotional state as she does physically and the sex scenes provide a window into two compellingly flawed, multifaceted human beings. Slick and, to a certain degree, self-important, The Human Contract wears its philosophical pretensions on its sleeve but Pinkett crafts intelligent dialogue, throws some compelling twists and turns and draws terrific performances from her two leads: Jason Clarke and Paz Vega, in a rare American outing worthy of her talents. Pinkett herself plays a supporting role as Julian's half-sister who is trying to escape an abusive spouse in a sub-plot that occasionally feels contrived and unnecessary yet does reveal a significant facet of the hero's personality. The film also features a strong supporting cast including Idris Elba, Ted Danson and Joanna Cassidy appearing as Julian's mother, yet another significant female presence proving the key to unlocking his tortured psyche.
Although the film admittedly struggles to hold viewer interest in boardroom politics and corporate wrangling, the half-heartedness of that aspect of the plot may be partly the point. Michael does after all embody the exciting alternative to Julian's stifling corporate driven existence. Pinkett is similarly more preoccupied with using their erotic obsession as a springboard to pose questions like what is a relationship supposed to be? Are the protagonists indulging in soul-searching waffle as shallow justification for base lust or can their morally murky connection prove as fulfilling, loving and nurturing as any regular romance? For all its pretensions, The Human Contract deserves some credit for its mature, complex and thought-provoking stance on sex. Cult film fans may warm to the film given Julian and Michael bond watching the Thomas Edison silent film version of Frankenstein. Whereupon Michael uses the monster as an intriguing analogy for whether our obsession with goodness overrides our yearning for greatness.