Written and Directed by Chloe Domont | 113 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Netflix
Fair Play is an adrenalized New York picture the likes of which we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s got the bones of something like Margin Call, set in that world, but it’s entirely its own beast — making its own inquiries and drawing fresh conclusions. It may be about the personal dynamics of a couple in a high-stress workplace, but this picture is paced and directed as a thriller.
The filmmaker, Chloe Domont, cut her teeth on series like Billions, Ballers, and Suits, so a movie about financial and gendered power games is a good fit. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor, Bridgerton) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich, Hail Caesar!) are hedge fund managers, toiling in the kind of workplace that draws the most competitive, blue-suited, toxic assholes.
Emily and Luke are in a loving relationship under wraps because it contravenes the no fraternizing rule at work. The movie starts with them getting engaged during a hilarious (and messy) scene of bathroom sex while she’s on her period. That scene is reenacted in a bathroom late in the film where violence, emotional and physical, splashes to the surface.
When their supervisor melts down and is carried off the premises, Luke thinks maybe he’s next in line for the job, but the guy who runs the place, Campbell (a supremely unpleasant Eddie Marsan), chooses Emily. It’s clear she’s just better at her job than Luke, a hard truth (amongst many) neither of them are prepared to face up to — at first.
The crux of the movie through the second and third act is how this change in the workplace dynamic affects the couple’s relationship. At first Luke’s entirely supportive, but privately this change has been a shot to his self-esteem. Emily, hyperaware of the patriarchal entrenchment not only in her workplace but in the psyche of her partner, does everything she can to help Luke but it’s clear she’s also struggling with how to deal with a workplace culture where her boss is OK with calling her a “fucking stupid bitch.”
Full marks to the two leading performers — their chemistry as a couple is entirely plausible, and the film pivots on how that attraction ends up being a liability for both of them. Geraldine Somerville’s terrific as Emily’s deeply problematic mother, manifesting mostly over a series of phone calls, and Rich Sommer as Campbell’s right hand man brings welcome echoes of Mad Men to the tale.
The script here is dynamite, nuanced enough to allow for a stretch where we’re tempted to empathize with one party or another, perhaps even both, but by the time we’re deep into the third act, it’s crystal clear what the film is saying about the fragile egos of men. The clues are there all along — witness Luke’s sudden interest in books by a Jordan Peterson-like men’s rights figure.
Fair Play is punched up by terrific editing and song choices — a lot of love songs and jazz standards being played off in the distance somewhere, just so you’ll recognize the myths of romance being shattered against the hard ceiling of ambition and sexism.
And just when you think the acrimony in this relationship can’t get any worse, pressures from without and within send it into almost a Hitchcock via DePalma space. And when was the last time you saw a new movie dip into that pool? This is cutting, intense, and ultimately enervating stuff.