Hollywood has long been seduced by the world of high finance. All that money! All that power! The glossy skyscrapers that house hedge funds and investment banks look too polished to contain American psychos and Wall Street wolves. And yet, there they are—an assortment of memorable monsters, backstabbing and clawing their way to the top.
In Fair Play, a Sundance hit Netflix acquired for $20 million that begins streaming tomorrow, the writer-director Chloe Domont contrasts the coldness of the conference room with the steaminess of the bedroom. The couple at the story’s center, Emily (played by Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), are colleagues keeping their relationship a secret. Their romance is against HR policy, and their effort to hide it—exchanging pleasantries in front of their colleagues, making sure they arrive separately at the office—is also a titillating game. At work, they’re the picture of buttoned-up efficiency. At home, they have sex on the floor. But when Emily gets promoted above Luke shortly after they get engaged, the tenuous line between their professional and personal lives blurs, threatening their forthcoming marriage.
That’s a tantalizing setup, but not much about Fair Play works beyond it. Domont valiantly attempts to examine how gender affects power dynamics; her script deconstructs corporate culture through a female perspective, and doubles as a treatise on the turmoil of ambition for women. Yet the shaky character development, melodramatic dialogue, and mismanaged tone result in a sloppy misfire. Fair Play positions itself as a psychosexual thriller, but it’s neither truly provocative nor all that sexy.
The problem begins with Emily and Luke’s unconvincing chemistry. They’re introduced as smitten lovers, but much of the movie that follows portrays them as near-strangers. When Emily tries to repair their relationship by enticing Luke to go to bed with her, she’s surprised that he disengages. This is meant to highlight the growing distance between them, but her shock and his sudden coldness feel implausible given their supposed history. Worse, the story never conveys anything about their personalities beyond the fact that they’re engaged and like being clandestine at work. They’re not really characters, but mouthpieces delivering on-the-nose lines—“The only man I let walk all over me is you,” Emily says—leaving Dynevor and Ehrenreich, both capable actors, lost in their roles.
Between the two, Luke suffers more from the shallow material. Almost immediately after Emily’s ascendance at the office, he resorts to spewing passive-aggressive comments and studying the work of a self-help guru who’s a thinly veiled men’s-rights-activist type. Indeed, every detail given about Luke renders him a cartoonish villain, and when he’s so obviously in the wrong, it lowers the dramatic stakes. The film reveals that he is only employed because of personal connections; before long, he accuses Emily of sleeping her way to the top, and criticizes her appearance. Such toxic behavior exists in real life, of course, but Luke’s meager characterization saps the story of tension.
The film eventually devolves into a deadly serious denouement. Without spoiling too much, violence plays a last-minute role, opting for a shock ending rather than an incisive conclusion. Just when the film begins to complicate the couple—Luke’s devotion to proving himself in his job may come from being surrounded by machismo; Emily starts drinking heavily to avoid him—it undermines itself in an ugly way.
Fair Play belongs to a recent wave of films that wrestle with gender politics by filtering their narrative—often about women making themselves small to help their male partners feel less emasculated—through a genre lens. Some, such as the horror-tinged Fresh, have successfully married stylish filmmaking with compelling characters. Others, such as Cat Person, the misguided adaptation of the viral short story, have added unnecessary drama to justify being a thriller. Fair Play belongs to the latter category. It struggles to fully engage with the challenging questions that fuel its narrative. Though the film constantly seems poised to deliver something insightful—about power imbalances in relationships, the fine line between work and play, the way people can make their job their entire identity—it never finds any depth, thus leaving the viewer with frustratingly little to care about. In the end, it just feels like one long tease.