The most buzzed-about title at this past January’s Sundance (accompanied by an astonishing $20 million acquisition from Netflix), Chloe Domont’s Fair Play has been heralded as the triumphant return of the “erotic thriller,” and, to borrow a sentiment from Nelson Muntz, there are at least two things wrong with that description. A slick-looking yet lifeless corporate drama set amidst the high-stakes world of hedge funds, the film boasts what is admittedly a tantalizing premise: two financial analysts, one male and one female, surreptitiously date one another only to find their relationship begins to sour once she’s promoted ahead of him. As she ascends to the upper ranks of the boy’s club, she begins to take on some of the less charming (and overwhelmingly male-coded) traits of her C-level colleagues while his wounded masculinity leads to him retreat further into his work, unable to share in the excitement of her success. It’s fertile ground to explore the ever-shifting dynamics in the battle of the sexes, yet Domont confuses thematic incoherence for nuance, pulling her punches for much of the film only to wildly overcompensate in the home stretch. It all feels like a handful of David Mamet scripts reduced down in a pot with much of the misanthropy and all the tartly memorable dialogue skimmed off the top.
We’re introduced to the newly engaged Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) drunkenly pawing at one another at his brother’s wedding. Young, ambitious, and attractive — the characters are even sanguine about getting menstrual blood all over their best clothing, implying a commendable level of sex-positivity in the film’s early scenes that’s subsequently abandoned — the couple spends their private hours adorably playing house out of a spacious Manhattan apartment only to feign indifference for one another at work, even staggering their arrival at the office lest they draw unwanted attention. Luke is rumored to be in line for the office’s recently vacated portfolio manager role, but when the firm’s domineering, thuggish president Campbell (ubiquitous character actor Eddie Marsan, trading his British accent for a Noo Yawk one) reaches past him and selects Emily to be PM, it changes the tenor of the celebration. Luke smiles through his disappointment while Emily’s first instinct is to apologize, assuring her fiancé that this will be good for both of them as she’s now ideally situated to champion him. But it becomes apparent that Luke has no future at the firm — Campbell admits in private that he only hired Luke as a favor; he intends to neg him until he’s spared the trouble of firing him when he finally quits. Worried about further bruising his fragile psyche, Emily refuses to tell him, instead trying to sell the perks of the job — hefty commission checks, tables at exclusive restaurants — as a win for both of them. But with Luke increasingly caught up in his own head — tanking his sex drive just as the newly emboldened and frequently sloshed Emily sees a spike in her own libido — and desperate to prove his worth, it becomes clear that no amount of tap dancing or ego-massaging will save this relationship and that something’s got to give.
It’s to Domont’s credit that the film avoids easy villainization for as long as it does. Ehrenreich channels Luke’s frustration into relentless self-improvement — getting up early to work out, grinding away at the office well into the evening, taking self-help courses — with the character’s “hostility” initially limited to being a wet blanket or being too preoccupied with getting his own career on track to bother with sabotaging Emily. In fact, at first it’s Emily, shown repeatedly crawling home drunk in the middle of the night and expecting sex on demand, who could credibly be accused of changing for the worse; she even employs the language of quid pro quo, albeit in a more forgivable context, that she’ll help Luke’s career if he goes down on her. Eventually, though, perhaps recognizing that the film is merely going in circles — or, more cynically, that there isn’t quite the same appetite for a film that argues career advancement nurtures toxic traits in women as much as it does men — a switch flips in Luke. Based on office chatter and his wandering imagination, Luke becomes consumed with the idea that Emily only received the promotion because she slept her way to the top. Suddenly, the sweet, scrunch-faced guy smiling through the pain is calling Emily a “hooker,” disappearing for days on end, and is showing up to the office going through the exaggerated motions of behaving like a drunken wretch. It’s all setting the stage for an act of transgression that’s clearly been conceived as the film’s line-blurring raison d’être, or would be if the moment wasn’t also so nakedly calculated and contrived.
It’s unfair to hold the film’s marketing or even its pre-release hype (no matter how much of it may have been self-generated) against it, and so it’s not necessarily Fair Play’s fault that it’s neither especially sexy nor thrilling, but that does speak to its somewhat confused identity. Domont’s film is a hodgepodge of hot-button topics that feel underdeveloped, as though indiscriminately introducing them through the text were the same thing as actually unpacking them. It’s vague whether Luke is being a self-absorbed baby whose envy and deeply ingrained chauvinism is destroying his relationship or if he’s simply at his wits end over his significant other stumbling home drunk in the middle of the night after being out all night with her male colleagues (not to engage in “whataboutism,” but consider who’s typically framed as the sympathetic party when these gender roles are reversed). Nor does the film make an especially compelling argument that Emily appropriating the rough-hewn, inherent misogyny of the firm — after losing the fund a significant amount of money, Campbell calls her a “dumb fucking bitch” to her face, even repeating the line more clearly with the implication being “and what are you going to do about it?” — corrodes her personal values, leaving her an empty husk of her former self. She readily embraces the scummy, bro-ish sensibilities of her colleagues, even making it rain at a strip club after yucking it up sharing off-color anecdotes.
When she finally does “break bad,” it’s meant to be seen as simply going tit for tat. And speaking of breaking bad, for long stretches the film is all but indistinguishable from a certain strain of cable TV show that treats success in business like jockeying for the Iron Throne (it should be noted that Domont cut her teeth directing Ballers and Billions; draw your own conclusions). And so, Fair Play is perpetually caught between aspiring to speak to the moment, that in 2023 a woman “having it all” is inextricable from performing emotional maintenance on an insecure partner, and glib provocations, including the film’s final scene which seems designed to serve as an “iconic” mic drop yet comes off like the air slowly being released from a balloon. The film is neither nasty enough to quicken the pulse nor pointed enough to penetrate the discourse. Instead, it merely flatters a certain strain of viewer with its nebulous, slightly acidic overtures to “how we live now,” tailor-made for rapturous applause from festival audiences.
DIRECTOR: Chloe Domont; CAST: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: September 29; STREAMING: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.