Film Review: “Fair Play” — All’s Fowl in Love and Business

By Steve Erickson

The unpleasantness of the film’s first sex scene turns out to be a foreshadowing of a refreshingly curdled vision of insecurity in the 21st century.

Fair Play directed by Chloe Domont. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theater and Kendall Square Cinema beginning September 29.

A scene from Fair Play. (L to R) Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily. Photo: Sergej Radovic / Courtesy of Netflix

Fair Play would be an erotic thriller if money and competition didn’t keep getting in the way of sex. The screenplay looks at the perils facing physical desire in a male-dominated world in which business rivalry has made love an impossibility. The strain of working for a corporation overpowers the libidos of the film’s characters. Constructed as a maze of glass, the office where Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) are employed offers no opportunities for privacy. Yet the glass casts a constant reflection, distorting all that’s around it. Everything can be seen, but not accurately. Further developing that peeping-tom idea, director Chloe Domont and cinematographer Menno Mans shot much of Fair Play in shallow focus. Many scenes begin as close-ups of one character, with another figure slowly moving into a clearer view. The camera creates a myopic vision — the background rarely matters.

Corporate hypocrisy is also up front in this film: the sound of a canned workshop about diversity and sexual harassment is cranked up to the maximum to drown out a man smashing his computer monitor in anger at learning he has been fired. Fascinated by the possibility of taking over the newly vacant position, few people even pay attention to the rhetoric of liberal enlightenment.

Early on in Fair Play, Luke and Emily get together at a wedding. Planning to propose to her, he’s brought a ring. They have had to deny their intimacy in public become of their employers’ ban on workers becoming lovers. They live together as a couple, in secret. Complications arise when Luke believes that he’s next in line for a promotion, but the position winds up going to Emily. Innuendo around the office suggests her male co-workers believe Emily got the job by sleeping with their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan), which is not true. Although initially supportive, Luke becomes increasingly distraught, and then desperate, because he has lost out on moving up. He remains low in the pecking order; Luke only make suggestions about stocks to trade while Emily gets to place the final decision.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Michael Douglas incarnated the white collar version of the period’s vision of conservative masculinity. On the one hand, Luke’s behavior is as scummy as the actions taken by Douglas’ characters in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. But Luke’s acts of revenge reflect a crucial lack of confidence, both sexual and financial. There is none of Douglas’s hubris. (The latter would not have let himself look as exhausted as Luke does.) The truth is that Luke is struggling with imposter syndrome: he acts like he’s still getting his MBA, spending time by himself watching TED Talks and reading books about how to get rich in the finance industry. The idea of his girlfriend competing with him at work generates some sexual attraction at first, but he soon realizes she’s better at being “one of the boys” than he is (down to her stronger libido).

In that sense, Fair Play shares common ground with a body of films writer Max Read has dubbed “halogencore.” There are substantial differences from the likes of Margin Call, Michael Clayton, Shattered Glass, and Glengarry Glenn Ross — not least in its interest in sex as the primary way power is exercised. Still, it resembles Read’s description: “they are stories of beaten-down people negotiating with or acquiescing to power. The ‘victory’ of a happy ending in a halogencore movie is not a happy ending, but that our compromised hero has been managed to survive inside the machine without being crushed.”

Fair Play’s thematic innovation is its recognition that the workplace can’t be separated from home. Luke and Emily’s apartment looks even less inviting than their office. (The fact that the film, set in New York, was actually shot in Belgrade no doubt contributed a subliminal touch of strangeness.) Campbell expects Emily to be available to speak with him till 2 a.m. every night. Despite hope to the contrary, relationships have never been much of an escape from brutal power dynamics. At this point, the very concept of work-life balance has become a sick joke.

The problem is that, as cultural critique, Fair Play plays along with our queasy, admiring engagement with great wealth. The focus remains on the way business poisons the lives of two people — rather than attempting to underline the flaws of capitalism or the dehumanizing behavior of the rich. These accusations are implicit, pointed out only on the micro level. Still, there’s some welcome respect for the viewer in its assumption that we can project its politics outwards. We see the traumatic damage caused by corporations through their destruction of a couple’s ability to even live together without hatred.

Fair Play differs from Succession or Mad Men — to which it alludes through the casting of Rich Sommer in a small role — because the narrative refuses to make the world of wealth seductive. For instance, Emily’s bonus check for $575,000 barely comes across as something to celebrate; her night out partying at a strip club with her oafish male colleagues feels like the start of her dawning corruption.

However, by that point the flaws in Fair Play’s script have become evident. The dialogue can’t resist a tendency to give us Luke and Emily speaking about its themes explicitly, as when Luke tells Campbell he wants to become him. Domont’s background — in series like Billions and Ballers — takes over. In terms of its economic satire, Fair Play sits closer to prestige Cable TV, with its canon of morally ambiguous characters trapped in a sacrosanct system stabbing each other in the back. Netflix acquired the film at Sundance and will be releasing it to movie theaters, but Fair Play may find a more natural home on the streaming service.

Still, the unpleasantness of the film’s first sex scene turns out to be a foreshadowing of a refreshingly curdled vision of insecurity in the 21st century. By updating the machinations of Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, Fair Play arrives at an anxious space where individual fortunes, personal and financial, are built to crumble.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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