As the idea of a healthy work-life balance grows more and more unfathomable in this era of late-night emails, weekend remote work sessions and work-from-home productivity monitoring, it’s unsurprising to see personal relationships take a serious hit. When we’re expected to do far more than ever before, for far less than what we’re worth, all from the comfort of our houses, there’s naturally going to be a change in dynamic with our loved ones. Financial worries, job insecurity, the pressure to meet unrealistic goals that someone above you will inevitably take the credit for once completed … It’s a lot.
Chloe Domont’s debut feature Fair Play explores the burden of this reality to its most catastrophic potential. But despite a bullish start, the film ends up in a bear market.
As the story begins, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are in love. At the bar, out to eat, on the dance floor… It’s abundantly clear to anyone who spends but a few seconds observing their connection. At least, when they’re in the real world. At work on the floor of a high-stakes hedge fund, where the two work as stock analysts, they might as well be strangers. It’s a violation of company policy to date, and neither is about to screw up the other’s skyward trajectory at the firm — especially when a highly coveted position just opened up under the formidable Campbell (Eddie Marsan). Inside the confines of their New York City apartment, they’re engaged to be married. Amongst the office’s maze of glass walls, computer monitors and stock market tickers, they’re nothing more than colleagues reaching for the same rung of the corporate ladder.
They’ve worked out a pretty successful system, all things considered. Emily and Luke are good at playing their parts, and no one suspects a thing. That is, until a rumor derails their entire way of life. When Emily overhears that Luke is the one who’ll get the prized spot with Campbell, the pair celebrate as if they’d just won the lottery. Reasonably so: this is the kind of gig that rewards quick thinking and smart moves with half-million-dollar checks and a professional high like no other. It’s the jackpot. But when a 2 a.m. phone call drags Emily out of bed instead of Luke, it’s apparent she misheard the gossip. She’s getting the gig, not Luke. The miscommunication about the promotion undermines everything that was working so well for the couple before. Emily must learn how to be a part of the boys’ club, while Luke must adjust to his new role underneath his fiancée-turned-manager.
It’s the perfect setup for an erotic thriller: gender, power, money, sex, the public versus the private. Nothing that would feel out of place in a classic from Adrian Lyne, Paul Verhoeven or Brian De Palma in the 1980s and ‘90s. That’s not Domont’s angle, however. She’s a veteran of what I’d dub Dad TV — a writing credit on HBO’s Ballers, directing credits on USA’s Suits and Showtime’s Billions — and her first film is unsexy by design. When the structure changes, Emily and Luke go celibate. There’s a direct correlation between the number of days since they were last intimate and the amount of tension growing between them. Television is mostly sexless by necessity. You can only show so much before the network or the FCC raises concerns. Here, Domont’s picture is sexless by spite.
When Luke loses out on the job he thought he’d secured, sex becomes the one object he can hold over Emily’s head. She may have the bigger salary, the better benefits, the superior office and the best portfolio, but Luke gets to vindictively deprive her of the only thing she doesn’t have: him. The higher she climbs, the further away he shifts — instead burying himself in pseudo-intellectual seminars that boil down to business tips by way of pickup artistry. Domont has constructed a not-so-subtle metaphor for the rise of celibate alt-right misogynists fighting back against the female empowerment movement. At the same time, by thrusting Emily into the role of the cutthroat, sex-hungry magnate, Domont reveals how the corporate girlboss functions to uphold the patriarchy — not topple it.
And yet the film struggles to rally for long. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich do a commendable job with the disappointingly shallow characters they’ve been given. (Ehrenreich in particular gets a handful of moments that remind viewers how capable he could be in a meatier role.) Depth has never been a requirement for the pawns on the chessboard of this genre and so naturally, Domont’s subversion of it would be guilty of the same surface-level characterization — but there needs to be a little bit more for an audience to grip onto here. Instead, we get brief scenes of normalcy with Emily and Luke before they’re tossed in the pressure cooker. The final result is a tad underdone, not to mention unsatisfyingly vapid. Still, it is enjoyable to watch Domont tighten the screws on these two for the first couple acts.
Like the riskiest stocks on the market, Fair Play dips and rallies in patterns I could never truly pin down. Just when it appears to be trending upward, it plummets even lower. While thrilling for a spell, you may wish you’d settled for something with a more dependable return on investment. Luckily, this one only cost me 113 minutes.Fair Play
Directed by Chloe Domont. Written by Chloe Domont. Opens in theaters September 29 and streams on Netflix October 6.
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