Written and directed by Chloe Domont
With Phoebe Dynevor (Emily), Alden Ehrenreich (Luke), Eddie Marsan (Campbell), Rich Sommer (Paul), Sebastian De Souza (Rory), Sia Alipour (Arjun), Yacine Ramoul (Jeremie), Brandon Bassir (Dax), Jamie Wilkes (Quinn), Freddy Sawyer (Derek)
Reviewed by Tim Jackson
The sanguinary opening of the new Netflix production, Fair Play, begins with a man going down on a woman in a public bathroom and coming up for a kiss covered in menstrual blood. Laughing at their red-stained party clothes, he suddenly drops a ring and, picking it up, proposes marriage. The scene foreshadows queasy moments to come. Their graceless romance and off-balance sexual dynamics will be stressed to the limit when she receives a top promotion while he remains in the trenches at the finance firm where they both work.
English actress Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) is Emily, beautiful and tough with razor-sharp instincts for the ins and outs of the financial world. Alden Ehrenreich (Cocaine Bear) is Luke an office functionary who works nose to the computer grindstone, confident he will eventually receive a similar promotion. He studies by night and dutifully attends to his job researching and crunching numbers for the boss, now his fiancé. He spouts off about how proud he is of her success while given to fawning refrains like “You’re so fucking beautiful” and “I’m so lucky” as he gazes into her eyes. “Are you going kiss me, or just stare?” she asks. “Just stare,” he says. As in A Star is Born, she rises, he crumbles. In addition, the engagement has to remain a secret. This is something her meddling mother has a hard time with. She begins to plan an engagement party as the relationship teeters.
Phoebe is the sharper of the two in a culture based on a relentless imperative to achieve. The stakes at this firm are high. One employee, foreshadowing events to come, begins smashing computers and cursing the firm before being dragged out by security. Discussions about leverages, buy-outs and profit and loss fly by like so much gibberish. No matter; this is about a bloody war between the sexes.
The film comes from director Chloe Domont, who chips away at every part of her draggy male hero. The cracks in the relationship come primarily due to his flaws: a sense of inferiority, sexual insecurity and an inflated sense of value and worth. He is an obsequious romantic prone to tantrums and false humility. It becomes clear that his instincts are poor; hers are razor-sharp. She tries to appease him, recoiling at the idea that her position might be tokenism. To show that she can be one of the boys and to assert herself in the face of his unreasonable jealousy, she stoops to partying uncomfortably with her male co-workers at a strip bar. That does not go well. Domont is effective at keeping us on edge. As a feminist tirade, there is some worthwhile schadenfreude but the film grows increasingly implausible with clichés that strain credibility.
The bright spot in this drama is the domineering boss, Campbell, played by Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan, Happy Go Lucky). His stillness runs counter to the chaos and tension around him. His late-night promotion of Emily has a quiet, seductive quality that the film never follows up on. Through stone-cold eyes, he handles the tantrums and pleas of desperate workers with eerie calm.
A larger question lurks. Why would a brilliant, gorgeous woman put up with a blatantly insecure, hypocritical creep? The relationship stretches credulity. Still, it fashions a fable of sexual dynamics in the 21st century: men as jealous, unstable partners. These men assume that sexual attraction is a principle cause for success. They offer sly innuendos, which are awkward and obnoxious attempts at seduction and one upmanship. Fair Play often plays with logic in scenes that lack resolution. Frustrating as that is, audiences are likely to ignore leaps of common sense in favor of the film’s mythmaking. Audiences will revel in its satisfying, if implausible, catharsis.
– Tim Jackson