Fair Play (2023)

‘Fair Play’ effectively weaponizes sex in the office

It begins with the blood of a woman and ends with the blood of a man. But it’s what transpires between that proves most captivating in Chloe Domont’s auspicious filmmaking debut, “Fair Play.”

It’s another treatise on the war between the sexes, but what sets it apart is the spotlight it shines on the battles women are forced to wage in a world where men still retain the majority of power. It’s a toxic situation, to say the least. Let your guard down, even for a second, and you’ll be penetrated by the blunt end of the male ego. You’re literally outmanned. Countering it requires cunning, intense patience, and a deaf ear to what Trump famously dubbed “locker-room talk.”

Domont didn’t navigate the shark-filled waters of hedge-fund firms in her professional life, but she fully understands the labors of her warrior heroine, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor, “Bridgerton”), a promising young woman suffering the daily slings and arrows of the doubting Thomases, Dicks and Harrys. Most notably, the necessity to suppress her superior, Harvard-honed intellect and acumen in order to appear non-threatening. In the office, Emily accepts this as the price of doing business. But it’s different at home, where she’s an equal cherished by her newly minted fiancé and co-worker, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich, “Oppenheimer”). Or, so she believes.

Luke, she’s about to learn isn’t the man she thought he was, if he’s a man at all. In actuality, he’s a whiny little B, seething with jealousy and resentment once word comes from on high that she, not he, has been awarded the position he’s coveted since adolescence. Let the unraveling of their relationship, and his sanity, begin. But don’t expect Domont to break out into a victory dance. Rather, there’s a discernible sympathy toward Luke’s plight, with Domont casting blame predominantly on society’s lengthy adherence to gender roles heavily favoring men.

Sure, she goes to extremes in depicting the disintegration of the seemingly perfect romance in which Luke and Emily naively trust. But there is a real truth and an even more real pain attached to the conviction Luke’s embraced since childhood, that men are king. He devolves into a Class-A jerk, but Domont elicits compassion for him, both at home and on the job. He’s a victim, not a tormentor in Domont’s eyes. By introducing that smidgen of empathy, she enables us menfolk to recognize our own espousal of these archaic beliefs. If you catch yourself squirming, that’s probably why.

Even better, Domont reveals Emily sacrificing her own values and self-esteem in a misguided attempt to become one of the boys. That includes swallowing her pride long enough for a night out with the guys at a sleazy strip club. It’s all part of a philosophy a 17-year-old Emily once laid out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in which she advocates “learning the rules” of negotiating the space you’re boxed into.

Likewise, teenaged Luke dedicated himself to being just like his boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan, “Ray Donovan”), a ruthless, take-no-prisoners hedge-fund entrepreneur who values his employees on the basis of how much money they earn him. If it’s not enough, there’s the door. Ditto for anyone embarking on an inner-office liaison.

It’s all rather depressing; yet watching it unfold indulges our instinct of rooting for the presumed underdog, Emily, at the expense of the apparent villain, Luke. But it also compels us to contemplate how we would respond to a power shift as dramatic as the one Luke and Emily encounter. Would we accept it, or would we allow it to destroy a loving, caring relationship? The answers should spark some spirited post-credits discussions, rendering “Fair Play” an ideal date movie for the daring.

There are some quibbles to be sure, not the least of which is the stilted chemistry between Dynevor and Ehrenreich, but it does little to diminish the impact of witnessing love repeatedly conquered by power and greed. The two actors could not be more convincing in demonstrating how low we humans can sink when opting to chuck our values for the allure of wealth and status. Most remarkable is their ability to sell us on behavior that registers somewhat over the top during an uneven third act.

I also found the ending a tad bizarre, more representative of the thriller genre than of a chronicle of characters we’re so wholly invested in. Chalk that up to Domont’s inexperience. Yet there’s so much she gets right, like her clever use of glass and mirrors, and the way in which certain scenes reflect back on others, such as the aforementioned spilling of blood. That’s why, in spite of herself, Domont achieves that all-too-rare triumph of enlightening as well as entertaining. She’s fearless, innovative and perceptive, with razor-sharp instincts. And she uses them to expose deep wounds with little hope of healing.

Movie review

Fair Play

Rated: R for sexual violence, sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity

Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan and Rich Sommer

Director: Chloe Domont

Writer: Chloe Domont

Runtime: 113 minutes

Where: On Netflix

Grade: B+

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