Review: Make no mistake, 'Fair Play' is a powerhouse

First-time feature filmmaker Chloe Domont zeroes in on gender warfare.

September 29, 2023, 4:15 AM
Alden Ehrenreich as Luke in Fair Play.
Alden Ehrenreich as Luke in Fair Play.

Never discount the seductive heat of an erotic thriller to get at the sexual politics invading the workplace. Case in point: "Fair Play," now in theaters in advance of an Oct. 6 debut on Netflix. Having sold for a record $20 million at the year's Sundance Film Festival, "Fair Play," which is all about playing dirty, is appropriately set in the world of high finance. And make no mistake, it's a powerhouse.

First-time feature filmmaker Chloe Domont zeroes in on the gender warfare at play when Emily, a young Manhattan hedge funder ("Bridgerton" breakout Phoebe Dynevor) gets the job her fiancé Luke ("Oppenheimer" scene-stealer Alden Ehrenreich) lusted after. Heck, as a teenager Emily was already published in the Wall Street Journal. So there's now a woman in the boys club. The big question is: for how long?

You couldn't find two better actors than Ehrenreich and the British Dynevor, expertly using an American accent, to find the roiling tension beneath the surface sizzle. After all, Luke must now report to her. He pretends it's OK, but for this mass of insecurity masked by ego it is so, so not. The actors nail every nuance in this unbalanced relationship. Their performances are double dynamite.

PHOTO: Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.
Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.

Emily and Luke have been keeping their engagement secret at the office -- it's against company policy -- which only makes their sex scorchier at home. But when Emily wins the job Luke so ferociously coveted everything changes, especially in bed.

In the view of Domont, who has also directed for the Showtime series "Billions" -- also set in Manhattan's financial jungle -- hell hath no fury like a fragile male ego scorned. The movie opens with a just-fired analyst demolishing his office with a golf club. Luke, who was attracted to Emily's ambition, now feels threatened by it, imagining she's slept with their boss (a terrifically smarmy Eddie Marsan), thinking with typical male bluster, "How else could she have seized his job?"

Says Domont, "I was interested in how the toxicity of a work environment feeds into the toxicity of a relationship and vice versa." And, oh boy, does she get us interested as well. "Fair Play" moves with lightning speed, only occasionally faltering when cliches force their way in.

At first, Luke tries to undermine Emily at work, intensifying her insecurity by knocking her fashion choices and demeaning her for going out for lap dances with the dudes who run the office. Kudos to "Mad Men" vet Rich Sommer for wickedly exposing the bro mentality he cagily exploits for his own advantage.

PHOTO: Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.
Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.
Slobodan Pikula/Netflix

To save their shaky relationship, Emily hangs back and makes herself small to help inflate Luke's wobbly self-regard. Eventually, their arguments become destructive and violent. And when Emily finally lets Luke have it in a tour de force of a tirade that Dynevor delivers with hurricane force, there's no going back.

If you find your sympathies seesawing between Emily and Luke, that's just the way Domont wants it. This fresh filmmaking provocateur would like nothing more than to see men and women leave her firecracker of a movie arguing like hell about it. No worries. They will.