All’s fair in love, war, and corporate finance, or so contends Fair Play, Chloe Domont’s prickly thriller about a couple whose efforts to stay together are complicated by their ambitious industry, workplace, and hearts. A breakout performance by Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor helps turn the writer/director’s debut feature—which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—into an entertainingly nasty bit of business whose main lesson is one its protagonist knows well, if fails to heed: Don’t shit where you eat.
The film, which had hot word-of-mouth on the ground in Park City this last week, made headlines on Monday when it was scooped up by Netflix for a whopping $20 million, making it the biggest purchase of this year’s festival—and one of the highest price tags in the entire history of Sunance. With all the cash riding on it (the last film to fetch over $20 million was CODA, which went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars), the question remains: Is it any good? Or, rather, worth that much money?
In the Manhattan office of investment management firm One Crest Capitol, Emily (Dynevor) overhears scuttlebutt that Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) is first in line to nab the prime portfolio manager job recently vacated by a tearful man who was escorted out of the building by security—much to the amusement of his cold-hearted colleagues. Emily tells Luke about this potentially phenomenal news because, as Fair Play’s initial scenes have revealed, they’re an item and can barely keep their hands off each other.
In fact, the two have recently gotten engaged via a sweetly drunken surprise proposal. While their steamy romance is flourishing, however, they’re duty-bound to keep it under wraps because their firm and its intimidating bigwig Campbell (Eddie Marsan)—a man whose smiles are more menacing than his glares—have a strict policy forbidding interoffice affairs.
Emily is petite and slender but she carries herself with steely purpose as she navigates this boys-club environment—where chauvinistic comments are as frequent as firings—just as she makes sure to let Luke know precisely what she wants—and how she wants it—when it comes to sex. An early rendezvous in a wedding-banquet bathroom goes comically awry when Luke comes up from beneath Emily’s legs with blood all over his mouth, and though they both laugh about it, this incident is a precursor for the real brutality, verbal and physical, that’s on its way. Fair Play thrums with erotic energy that’s more than a bit violent, and Emily is comfortable in that atmosphere, even once she receives news that will throw her life into disarray.
Fair Play’s tension begins to rise when Campbell, after meeting Emily for an impromptu 2 am chat at a bar, offers her the promotion instead of Luke. She’s naturally thrilled, and Luke does his best to be supportive and happy for her. Nonetheless, given his own aspirations and the ruthless nature of this milieu, it’s easy to spy the look of disappointment and jealousy lurking behind his smiling eyes. Emily shrewdly recognizes the position this puts her and Luke in, and tries to comfort him with promises of pushing for his own advancement. In that regard, she’s sincere, if not successful, since Campbell is happy to let her know that he sees Luke as a loser who’s destined for the door.
Akin to a 21st-century marriage of Disclosure and Boiler Room, Fair Play never quite catches carnal fire, yet it does slowly turn up the screws when Emily ignores Campbell’s warning and takes Luke’s advice on an investment move, only to lose the company a not-insignificant $25 million.
That necessitates an even bigger gamble predicated on Luke’s heard-it-through-the-grapevine intel, but no amount of betting can get them on equally solid ground. On the contrary, the greater the power imbalance between them grows at work, the more Luke begins to unravel, first by immersing himself in a guru’s online seminars, and then by listening to, and fuming over, his coworkers’ cracks about Emily sleeping her way to the top and proving herself one of the guys during a strip-club outing.
The sole thing that matters in this high-stakes world is money; loyalty, devotion, empathy, trust and love all take a back seat to revenue generation. Neither Emily nor Luke can see that, or at least are willing to admit it to themselves. Exacerbated by Luke’s wounded ego and slowly exposed sexism, they soon find themselves clashing more than coupling—not that Emily doesn’t try, only to be rejected by her suddenly flaccid husband-to-be. As if their domestic and professional lives weren’t anxiety-inducing enough, Emily is harassed by phone calls from her mother, who upon hearing that her daughter is set to wed decides to plan an impromptu celebration, thereby putting additional pressure on the duo’s strained bond.
Resentment breeds bitterness begets desperation results in escalating hostility, with Luke driven to take extreme measures to maintain his seat at the table and Emily forced to choose between her job and her beau. There’s no easy way out of this situation, and the film’s two leads share a combustible chemistry that makes one hope for their survival and then, once things cross a point of no return, pine for their destruction. Masking pitiful pent-up rage beneath a cracking façade of strength and understanding, Ehrenreich embodies Luke as a figure of detestable male insecurity, happy to play the good guy when he’s the top dog, and quick to seethe with misogynistic fury when things don’t go his way.
It’s Dynevor, though, who makes Fair Play sizzle. Balancing fiery sensuality and severe determination, the red-headed 27-year-old actress lights up the screen (literally, and figuratively) from her first close-up. Her performance is impressively nimble and consistently captivating, allowing Emily to be sympathetic no matter the challenges she faces or the (increasingly merciless) actions she takes. It’s a big, bold, charismatic turn—the stuff of which movie stardom is made.
Domont ably demonstrates that she too is ready for primetime, staging her material with a sharpness that reflects her cutthroat characters, and ramping up the hysteria until the film is primed to explode. Better still, rather than have things detonate in completely calamitous fashion, the writer/director merely crashes Emily and Luke into each other and then forces them to pick up the pieces of a thoroughly unnecessarily broken life.
In its closing moments, Fair Game becomes a vicious (and darkly funny) snapshot of the ruin that comes from valuing wealth, status and power above all else—and also the necessity of doing just that if one wants to get ahead. And now, it seems, there is $20 million on the line.
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