Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Fair Play’ is a Flawed, Drab Battle of the Sexes

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First things first, Fair Play is not an erotic thriller. I do not know who is responsible for that moniker, but it is not true. It is a reminder that with marketing, the studios often sell you the movie they think they have, not the film itself.

CW: Mention of sexual assault within the movie.

Instead, Chloe Domont’s feature debut is something altogether pricklier and, when it’s at its best, much darker. It’s a pity, then, that so much of her confident craftsmanship is buried under a stagnant script by Domont and a dreary, ugly-looking movie.  Fair Play has flashes of brilliance and tension but spins its wheels until the last 30 minutes.

fair play
Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) try to keep their relationship a secret.

Fair Play fires on all cylinders when it looks at the rapidly dissolving relationship of two investment bankers, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich). The two are a happily well-adjusted couple working at the same firm and are forced to keep their relationship secret. But then Emily gets a promotion, and Luke begins to unravel.

Their relationship is under stress, partly because they are forced to keep it a secret. So when Luke proposes, it becomes extra strained, with the two trying to figure out how to carry on without getting fired. However, I find it darkly comical that Domont is asking us to believe that investment bankers have some moral ethics. Then again, perhaps she also understands this and thinks Luke and Emily are being silly.

She even has a scene where the two and the rest of the company are watching a training video on sexual harassment, showing everyone on their phones ignoring the video. Domont highlights the pervasive misogyny of the investment banking world without anyone lecturing anyone about it. She has great faith in the intelligence of her audience, an admirable trait in these trying times.

I’ll give Fair Play credit; it does an excellent job of keeping it as much Emily’s movie as much as Luke’s. The way misogyny affects both of them makes Domont’s story gripping, the way it erodes and burns at the psyche. These moments make Fair Play feel like a cold heat, intense and chilling. However, the supposed build-up to the couple’s undoing feels like a slog and dampens what could have made Fair Play genuinely gripping.

fair play
Luke (Ehrenreich) and Emily (Dynevor) on the way to work.

Especially given that Domont opens the film with a scene of Luke and Emily at Luke’s brother’s wedding. The two sneak off to the bathroom for some drunken wedding sex. Luke eats Emily out and discovers she’s on her period. They laugh it off, and it ends with Luke proposing. Ordinarily, I’d say any man who has such a healthy reaction to this incident would be a keeper, but what Domont explores is how some men are only allies until they are threatened.

Throughout Fair Play, we see Luke’s insecurities nibble at his confidence while also seeing how Emily uses her insecurities to strengthen her footing in the brutal office politics that is investment banking. Emily goes out drinking with her male co-workers, turns one of their jokes of going to a strip club into a power move, and goes with them. While there, frustrated, horny, and drunk, she calls one of the dancers for a lap dance.

Domont never shames Emily for these actions. She’s more interested in how these inherent societally gendered traits are seen as unfavorable in the opposite sex—Emily’s bravado and ambitious drive.

While I found the aesthetics of Fair Play to be lackluster and dull, Menna Mans’s camera is doing some stellar work, as is Domont’s staging. Mans and Domont find ways to keep the tension taught, even when the script seems lost. Mans’s camera shifts between subjective viewpoints, simple glides to reveal, sight line whatever issues I may have with the lighting and the oppressive blandness of Fair Play; Mans’s movement keeps Fair Play from drowning in its faults.

The one thing that keeps Fair Play chugging along, even when Domnt’s script has stalled, is that the performances by Dynevor and Ehrenreich are so stellar as proof of Domont’s talent. Mans and Domont ensure the duo has enough space to sink their teeth into the barbed psyches of their characters.

Dynevor, in particular, is breathtaking in the way her Emily flowers and explodes into a new person, free from Luke’s self-destruction. The way she is tasked with expressing hunger, both for sex, validation, and respect, is somewhat refreshing in our current sexless modern era. Emily has a voracious appetite for the world around her, and it becomes clear early on that she and Luke are operating on two different planes.

Luke, on the other hand, once he discovers the promotion he thought was his, goes to Emily, begins to crumble. Unable to deal with the disappointment, he scrambles for self-help programs and seminars on Executive leadership and uses what he’s learned not to help himself but to tear Emily down. He tries to gaslight her by being critical, telling her she dresses too conservatively, too frumpish.

fair play
Emily (Dynnevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich) begin to grow apart.

The remark lands in Emily’s craw and worries its way into her psyche that she changes how she dresses. But then Fair Play forgets the scene ever happened, drops it, and moves on to the next scene. Domont’s script doesn’t build one instance onto another so much as it goes from one instance to another. The final third of the film, where Luke and Emily’s relationship erupts into a fiery cinder, feels raw and alive in a way the rest of the film doesn’t.

Neither Luke nor Emily are what you might call “good” people, but Emily at least comes by her toxic traits honestly and frankly seems more aware of them than Luke does. But Emily never actively tries to destroy Luke. The same cannot be said of Luke, who is lucky no one is pressing charges.

Domont takes a bold swing toward the last third of Fair Play. Luke and Emily’s relationship comes undone at a surprise engagement party. The final blow is in a bathroom sex scene that goes from hate sex to rape, a dark callback to the film’s earlier scene to show how much their relationship has dissolved.

Emily’s final line of the movie is a contender for one of the best last lines I’ve heard all year. The script for Fair Play has too much fat, bogging down the two-hour run-time. But when Domont lets Dynevor and Ehrenreich go at it, it’s fireworks. Fair Play may not work as a whole, but it’s fascinating and compelling when it does. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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