FAIR PLAY ˝
R, 113 mins.
2023, R, 113 mins.
Phoebe Dynevor as Emily / Alden Ehrenreich as Luke / Sebastian de Souza as Rory / Eddie Marsan as Campbell / Rich Sommer as Paul / Geraldine Somerville as Emily's Mother / Sia Alipour as Arjun / Jim Sturgeon as Uncle J / Jamie Wilkes as QuinnWritten and directed by Chloe Domont
Writer/director Chloe Domont's FAIR PLAY is a fascinating piece of hybrid cinema that also feels like a throwback to the types of genre films that we haven't seen since perhaps the 1990s.
It's an utterly intoxicating and razor sharply written workplace thriller set in the stressful world of finance analysts.
It's also an expose on male/female power dynamics, the fragility of the male ego, and the trials and tribulations of women trying to attain dominance in their occupation that's almost exclusively a male-dominated one.
Lastly, Domont's feature filmmaking debut is also a reasonably steamy psychosexual thriller that has echoes of films that permeated the scene decades ago, like DISCLOSURE, FATAL ATTRACTION, and UNFAITHFUL (all cross-morphed with WALL STREET for good measure). That, and FAIR PLAY is a bravura performance showcase for stars Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor, with both of them diving into intricate characters and giving Oscar caliber performances in the process. As far as films showing on Netflix, this is far and away one of the best that the streamer has recently offered.
The film opens by introducing us to
Emily Meyers (Dynevor) and Luke Edmonds (Ehrenreich), a madly-in-love
Manhattan couple that not only share a bed, but an employer. They're
both tirelessly dedicated and hard-working employees of One Crest Capital,
a tough, no-nonsense, and insanely cutthroat hedge fund run by the
emotionless and ruthless Campbell (a reptilian Eddie Marsan). Despite
the fact that Emily and Luke are an inseparable romantic item, they have
kept their relationship a tightly guarded secret at work, fearing that it
might jeopardize the relative peace and harmony they have there and at
home. One Crest Capital is the kind of company that chews and then
spits out employees with alarming frequency, which is shown early on in
the film when one of the portfolio managers gets terminated (he throws a
fit and nearly destroys his office before security can come in). Luke
and Emily like their respective chances of getting the newly vacated
position, but Emily - after hearing idle gossip in the office - thinks
it's going to be Luke that will nab it. Either way, it would be
welcoming, considering that Luke just proposed to Emily at his brother's
wedding (in what has to be one of the strangest movie proposals I've ever
seen in the film...trust me on this).
Things take a twisted turn for the engaged couple when Campbell calls Emily to the office in the wee hours of the morning. She is stunned when he offers her the new portfolio manager position. She awkwardly breaks the news to Luke, whom she's assuming will be crestfallen for being overlooked. Although initially surprised by the news, he quickly collects himself and heaps praise and congratulations on his bride-to-be. One thing that she secretly keeps from him is that Campbell - a financial figurehead that Luke admires with a passion - was never going to give Luke the job because...he simply doesn't like him. Nevertheless, the pair return to work and try to get acclimated to Emily's new high stature with the company. Things start off alright, but very slowly it becomes clear that Luke is growing increasingly resentful of being completely sidelined from an opportunity he once thought was his and his alone. This negatively translates to his growing and toxic bitterness that he starts to throw Emily's way. Whereas once these two were so close knit and tight (not to mention having a ravenous sexual appetite), but now they're growing emotionally and physically apart. Luke's increasingly erratic and openly hostile treatment of Emily starts to seriously hurt her and begins to deeply penetrate their daily work environment. Emily struggles to maintain her new job in spite of hellish expectations (and a lot of workplace misogyny) while also trying to keep a stable relationship with Luke (and keep it out of work), but he's becoming a dangerous powder keg that's going to blow at any inopportune moment.
One thing that FAIR PLAY does with exceedingly high precision is notating how horrible workplace conditions can have a disastrous impact on people, especially those in the same office that choose to date and directly contravene workplace policy. Domont also uses methodical slow burn tactics to show a once healthy and harmonious relationship getting dismantled one peg at a time because of one promotion and one rejection. Emily is not without talent in her field. The hellishly antagonistic (but forthright) Campbell explains to her that she got the job because of her intelligence, abilities, and for being able to manage people under intense pressure (even though he's not beneath chastising her when she hits roadblocks, like horribly labeling her a "dumb bitch" at one point). Emily has a massive hill to climb on multiple fronts. She has to succeed in her new job and please an office filled with petty and power-hungry men while also becoming her fiancé's new boss. Luke, on the other hand, begins to simmer with humiliation and a deeply wounded ego, which gradually gets the better of him and consumes his every thought. Domont doesn't show his psychological freefall too quickly, which would have been too dramatically broad and unnatural. He showers her with support in the early stages, but then subtly pulls away from her. This gives way to him completely pulling away from her and - worse yet - he starts to unfairly dissect her aptitude at work and questions the validity of her promotion, which, predictably enough, angers her to no end.
I think in the wrong creative hands, it would have been been easy to villainize Emily. To be fair, she's not presented as completely honorable either and is just as capable as Luke when it comes to unleashing ill-timed and hurtful insults. Having said that, the film's empathy remains wholeheartedly with her throughout the story, seeing as she has a much bigger series of hurtles that have to be overcome in a female-suppressed office culture that clearly doesn't take too kindly to women getting promoted over men. This forces her to do things that she would normally find abhorrent, like going out to a local strip club with her male colleagues just to show that she can be "one of the boys." Most importantly, she has had to face challenges that Luke has never had to in his life to climb the business and corporate ladder, largely because of unfairly skewed gender politics. Despite her skills and commitment at work, Luke just can't understand why he never got her position, even though he was never going to receive it in the first place. FAIR PLAY becomes systematically unnerving in showing how damaged male pride gives way to a creepy sense of personal entitlement. Luke just felt that Emily's position was his and he was robbed of it. He even starts to attend seminars by a motivational speaker that odiously teaches him how to assert his masculinity on the job and take what he perceives is his. This takes the early form of childish name calling, like lambasting Emily's wardrobe choices as that of a "cupcake." It gets worse....like...way worse...as he learns to weaponize his sexism.
The manner that FAIR PLAY observes the erosion of Luke and Emily's sexual appetites (and how that's inordinately tied to workplace politics and rampant sexism) is also fascinating. As the film opens, this pair can't stop having sex, which is on chief display during one impromptu (and extremely and shockingly icky) oral sex attempt by Luke in a bathroom while attending his sibling's wedding. They're equal and willing partners when it comes to untamed carnal lust as we're introduced to them. But whatever healthy (and in some cases unhealthy) sexual hunger they have for one another gets stamped out as Emily assumes her managerial position. They stop engaging in idle couples' chit-chat and then stop talking altogether. Then Luke starts to withhold sex as some sort of misplaced punishment, and then when he does drum up enough interest to partake, he becomes embarrassingly impotent. Later on, during a potential moment of reconciliation, he uses sex in a sickeningly forceful manner. FAIR PLAY is an exceedingly rare kind of thriller in how observant it is when it comes to mirroring a damaging workplace culture with that in the bedroom. It's also not afraid - as so many films are these days - to be an adult film for adults that doesn't shy away from on-screen eroticism (albeit, it takes a chillingly unsavory turn in the final sections).
As for the film's final 10-15 minutes, they
simply didn't work as well as everything in the story building up to it.
It perhaps ends with a bit too much frustrating vagueness (meaning,
yeah, it has a mostly non-ending) and comes off like Domont was trying to
wrap things up in an unrealistically quick fashion. Thankfully, it
doesn't capsize the entire endeavor, nor does it override my feelings that
Domont (who primarily worked on TV before) has a bright future in film
with an assured creative voice. She also garners remarkable
performances by Dynevor and Ehrenreich, with both confidently deep diving
into their respective roles with a never-look-back tenacity. Most
lay audiences are probably familiar with Ehrenreich's failed turn playing
a younger version of the iconic space hopping smuggler in SOLO:
A STAR WARS STORY, but here he's revelatory playing a man that
starts the film driven by pure love, but then sees it erode into self-pity
and later poisonous rage that consumes him beyond redemption. But
FAIR PLAY is Dynevor's film through and through. She plays a highly
demanding role of rich complexity and does so with a strength, resolve and
thankless nuance; it's a dynamite star-making performance here.
I've read some describing watching FAIR PLAY like witnessing a car wreck in super slow-motion. That's highly apt. The longer the film runs, the more psychologically brutal it becomes to endure. That's a testament to Domont's impeccable craftsmanship in showing two people's love deteriorate when one ascends an upper echelon role of power at work and the other flounders and remains at lowly status quo levels. As a romance picture and erotic thriller that's further wrapped in the world of high pressure corporate finance, FAIR PLAY is a uniquely creative achievement and one that I'm quite sure will have many viewers talking well after it cuts to the end credits.