During a caustically funny early scene in Chloe Domont’s taut, female-forward update on the ‘90s erotic thriller model, Fair Play, entry-level employees sit on the main floor of high-roller New York investment firm Crest Capital, watching one of those numbing HR video seminars about creating a safer workplace. As buzzwords like Accountability, Behavior and Integrity flash on the screen, a project manager in one of the coveted offices that line the walls is seen in full meltdown, destroying his monitors with a golf club and spewing a torrent of expletives until security escorts him out.
The undisguised glee with which all this is observed by the analyst underlings at their desks is a sign of just how toxically competitive the environment is. Employees are constantly shooting shifty glances or straining to catch whispered conversations, lying in wait for the next head to hit the chopping block in the hope that might create an opening for them to move up the ladder.
The Bottom Line
Slick and confident, if not terribly deep.
Positioned among those hungry financial analysts, far enough apart to avoid suspicion, are aspiring power couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who have been keeping their steamy relationship a secret because dating internally is against company policy. But outside the office, they can’t keep their hands off each other.
We know that because while the strains of Donna Summer’s songs-to-fuck-by classic, “Love to Love You Baby,” are still echoing over the opening scene, Emily and Luke are hooking up in the bathroom at his brother’s wedding. In a touch redolent of vintage Neil LaBute, the sudden onset of Emily’s period makes a mess of their formalwear, but that doesn’t faze Luke. He calmly picks up the sticky engagement ring from the spillage on the floor and proposes.
That intro, replete with some very basic dialogue like “I fuckin’ love you so fuckin’ much,” lets us know the throwback territory we’ve entered. But if there’s a significant flaw to this confident and compelling debut feature, it’s that it’s sleazy enough to be fun beyond its serious-minded overturning of antiquated gender dynamics, but not quite trashy enough to be truly juicy. I kept hoping to spy Glenn Close in a dark corner flicking a lamp on and off, or Demi Moore writhing on a bed being showered with money. Oh, well.
The intrigue around who will get the angry golfer’s spot heats up when Emily overhears a colleague sharing a rumor that Luke is in line for project manager. They begin celebrating immediately, with more sex, of course, and Emily says it’s time for them to fess up at the office, now that they’re engaged. But Luke insists on holding off until she also gets a promotion, and they can “tell everyone else to go fuck themselves.”
But things don’t go as planned. Emily gets a late-night call from smarmy colleague Rory (Sebastian de Souza), requiring her presence at a swanky downtown cocktail bar. Only Rory has already left when she gets there, leaving Crest CEO Campbell (Eddie Marsan), a chilly boss cut from Logan Roy cloth, alone at the bar.
Subverting expectations for a movie of this type, Campbell doesn’t hit on her but instead says she’s hiding her light under a bushel. He expresses admiration for her flight from working-class Long Island (“Not an easy hole to crawl out of”), and her quick ascent through prominent finance institutions before landing at Crest two years ago.
When Emily gets home, she has to inform Luke that he’s not getting the PM job because she is, making him the analyst who reports to her. Luke makes unconvincing noises about being happy for her, but any semblance of the relationship being more important to him than his career seems a thin veneer.
He hears guys in the office speculating salaciously about how she got the “fast pass,” and a seed of doubt appears to be planted in his mind. He asks her more than once if Campbell tried anything with her, implying that he’s somewhat susceptible to the view that the only way a young woman can get ahead is through sex. Or because of gender optics.
Thus begins the inexorable process of Luke’s emasculation, with every sign of Emily’s success representing another blow to his virility, to which he gradually starts responding by cutting her down any way he can.
Shot by Dutch cinematographer Menno Mans predominantly in moody night scenes or in the leeched-out lighting of the office, with stealthy, slow-moving camerawork intently scrutinizing the characters, the movie makes it clear as distance creeps into the relationship that at some point the union will shatter. And given the psychological thriller tradition on which Domont is riffing, it’s likely to involve a little violence.
All the finance-world talk of buying and selling, preemptively spotting weaknesses in the market to be exploited for major yield, is uninvolving plot wallpaper. It’s only interesting to the extent that it’s reflected in Emily and Luke’s relationship. While she’s out schmoozing with the Crest executives, he’s at home stewing, schooling himself in confidence-building skills hawked by a business guru that Emily dismisses as a waste of time.
Partly out of retaliation when Luke petulantly ignores her suggestion of a date night, she demonstrates a willingness to be one of the boys at a stripper bar where she laughs along with her colleagues’ misogynistic tales of college sexcapades while tossing back shots and slapping down wads of cash for lap-dances. But when she comes home smashed and usurps what was once Luke’s role as the sexual instigator, he’s not in the mood. (I did cringe a bit at Emily insisting, “We need to fuck the shit out of each other right now,” so who can blame him for declining?)
Emily’s efforts to help Luke at work backfire, and when she reluctantly bets big on a tip from him that doesn’t pay off, losing the company a hefty sum, a vague hint of sabotage hangs in the air. Or incompetence, which might be worse. Ignoring Luke’s advice and following her own instincts in a Hail Mary move to save face, Emily shows savvy way beyond his skill level.
Ehrenreich makes Luke appear more haggard and haunted with every fresh achievement that earns Emily acknowledgment and every sign that an upward trajectory is blocked for him. Bridgerton star Dynevor’s Emily, meanwhile, is torn between fueling her own career path and being sensitive to Luke’s bruised ego, trying to maintain a balance at home. But he becomes the embodiment of male fragility exposed by female power, and we know when he cracks it’s not going to be pretty.
The savagery of Luke’s humiliation at work is quite startling, as is his vicious act to remove Emily’s power in the most contemptible way possible. That all this is happening as Emily’s pushy mother (Geraldine Somerville) barrels ahead with an engagement party against her daughter’s wishes makes the crumbling of their relationship all the more brutal. The final developments honor the lurid psycho-thriller tradition, though arguably could have gone a step or two further. Even with a little bloodshed, the conclusion feels a touch restrained.
Domont’s script hits plenty of relevant points in its observation of male insecurity in a rapidly changing world of female parity, though Fair Play is never quite as provocative as it seems to think. Nor is it without improbable turns, notably Luke’s sudden moralistic streak as he hisses at Emily for “making the rich richer.” Gee, buddy, what field are you in again?
But the writer-director’s control is undeniable, making sharp use of a score by Brian McOmber to modulate the tone, with its juddering strings and needling synths at times like a ticking clock.
Dynevor and Ehrenreich have strong chemistry and generate plenty of sparks, both erotic and antagonistic, though I did wish Domont had allowed them a few more unhinged moments. Considering how it starts, the movie’s later developments seem to cry out for a more generous serving of nasty excess. There’s also not much to distinguish the supporting characters aside from Marsan’s ice-cold Campbell, who disseminates fear with just a dead-eyed stare, and erstwhile Mad Men favorite Rich Sommer as his obsequious right-hand man.
Quibbles aside, it’s good to see a genre movie tackling gender conflict in rigorously nondidactic ways, making this an auspicious debut for Domont.