Sundance 2023 Review: FAIR PLAY, All's Not Fair in Love and Gender War
There’s a moment in writer-director Chloe Domont’s impressively realized feature-length debut, Fair Play, when a collection of finance-bros, employees of the fictional One Crest Capital, a Manhattan-based hedge fund, half-watch a corporate-sponsored, obligatory, diversity and inclusion presentation while a newly fired PM (portfolio manager) takes out his rage at his summary dismissal on the computer equipment in his soon-to-be-ex-office.
Attention momentarily shifts to the PM before shifting back to the presentation, a sign or signal that the ex-PM’s tantrum isn’t new or novel; it’s close to routine for the familiarly ruthless, cutthroat world of high finance and low ethics.
Domont’s film, however, however, doesn’t center on the finance bros specifically like its predecessors (e.g., Margin Call, Boiler Room, Wall Street), but on a twenty-something couple, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich, Han Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor, Bridgerton), co-workers and clandestine lovers eventually turned rivals and antagonists. Given the nature of high finance and its binary emphasis on winners and losers — you’re either one or the other and if you’re the latter, you’ll soon face unemployment — it’s something of a miracle they’re together when Fair Play opens.
At least initially, their compatibility rests on the usual combination of hot sex and shared interests (finance), leading to an awkward, post-coital marriage proposal in a bathroom at the reception hall for Luke’s newly married brother, Theo (Buck Braithwaite). Their shared laughter over the unexpected start of Emily’s period suggests a couple comfortable with each other, but that soon changes once they return to Manhattan and One Crest Capital, where they both work as financial analysts. A rumor of Luke’s promotion to PM leads to a night of celebratory sex, only to end shortly thereafter when One Crest Capital’s reptilian CEO, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), offers Emily the promotion instead.
She accepts, of course, initially to Luke’s acceptance and approval, but also to his disappointment. Playing “good fiancé” doesn’t come naturally to Luke, though. In a carefully calibrated dance of social ritual, Luke says all the right things, but Domont and her cinematographer Menno Mans, keep the camera focused on the rapid-fire emotions that cross Ehrenreich’s face as Luke.
Rather than, say, seek a parallel analyst position with another PM, Luke readily accepts becoming Emily’s direct report. Even under the best of circumstances, reporting to your lover and fiancee would be rife with conflict and no company would allow it, but in Fair Play, Domont adds a “no fraternization rule” to explain Luke and Emily’s decision to hide their relationship from Campbell, their co-workers, and Human Resources.
Alternatively, Luke, taking his disappointment in hand, could seek employment elsewhere, but Domont relies on the audience’s suspension of disbelief to accept Luke’s decision to continue working at One Crest Capital and, more specifically, to become Emily’s financial analyst. Without that, of course, Fair Play would have turned into another film entirely. Instead, Luke allows his bitterness and resentment to fester and eventually poison his romantic relationship with Emily, especially as she begins to spend more and more time with Campbell and other PMs (drinking to excess, partying after work, etc.),
As Emily solidifies her position as PM, impressing Campbell with her self-confidence, quick decision-making skills, and above all, ability to use a combination of analysis, instinct, and guesswork to bring millions in profit to the hedge fund, Luke and his increasingly fragile ego begin to crumble. His feigned happiness at her promotion turns ill-advised, as he ultimately attempts to diminish Emily’s appearance and accomplishments. It’s a game Domont wants us to believe Luke can’t and won’t win, not least because he underestimates Emily’s willingness to leverage her newfound professional and personal power against him.
As a treatise on white male entitlement and its discontents or the addition of women into traditionally male-dominated industries, Fair Play doesn’t offer anything particularly new or insightful, but Domont’s multi-layered understanding of genre tropes, i.e., when to use, tweak, or otherwise subvert conventions typically associated with finance dramas and romantic thrillers, keeps Fair Play from becoming stale or tiresome. Domont smartly borrows elements from both sub-genres, weaving them into a mostly satisfying, organic whole.
Using Luke and Emily as avatars of two increasingly diametrical positions (white male entitlement vs. female empowerment) certainly helps the audience to remain interested in their rapidly disintegrating relationship. Their literal embodiment by Ehrenreich and Dynevor, giving their next-level best to add depth and dimensionality to their characters, fills in gaps in motivation, emotion, and feeling occasionally missing from Domont’s otherwise propulsive, enthralling screenplay.
Fair Play premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The film has just been acquired by Netflix, which has not yet announced its plans, if any, for theatrical distribution ahead of its streaming debut.