You can call Fair Play a lot of things: a finance-industy psychodrama about paying the cost to be the boss, a treatise on power dynamics in relationships, the surprise hit out of Sundance’s first weekend and the film festival’s first big-ticket sales item. (How Netflix plans on recouping its $20 million investment when it will likely only give this a mild theatrical release is not ours to guess. We’d merely like to nudge them to acknowledge what a crowd-friendly experience they have here and congratulate writer-director Chloe Domont on joining the ranks of $undance success stories!)
The simplest and single best description of this story about everything being fair in love and war — though this is a film that essentially asks, what’s the difference between the two? — is “extremely horny.” Readers may have already heard about the movie’s opening, in which Emily (Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) excuse themselves from a wedding reception to indulge in some one-on-one time. If you haven’t, we’ll just say that these two highly photogenic actors are enjoying themselves in the time-honored fashion of frantically fucking on a restroom sink, and, ah, there will be blood. It’s such a vintage bit of pulp rutting that you may find yourself wondering what year it is, especially when you see the dusky lighting of their decked-out New York apartment.
That, and when are the saxophones going to start wailing away on the soundtrack? Because while Domont and her cast have made a corporate thriller set in the dog-annihilate-dog world of hedge-fund capital, what they’re really going for is nothing less than bringing back the erotic thriller. The kind of trashy, sleazy, lurid, hyperventilating example of high-end bad taste that always came complete with problematic gender politics and plentiful exposed flesh. It takes place in 2023 and looks straight outta 1993. If these two gorgeous young things happened to stroll past Glenn Close cooking a bunny and Mickey Rourke feeding Kim Basinger strawberries out of the fridge, no one would bat an eye.
All Fair Play needs is to establish the rules of its updated genre game, and when these millennial versions of yuppies leave their downtown Manhattan apartment, we find out why we’re dealing with a properly tainted love story. During their morning commute, Emily and Luke kiss goodbye on the corner of their block. When we see them again, they’re respectively entering the elevator of their office job, pretending like they barely know each other. Both of them are analysts for One Crest Capital, the kind of movie version of a hedge-fund management firm in which people yell into phones and destroy desktops with nine-irons, and everyone still thinks Gordon Gekko is God. Workplace romances are verboten, so Emily and Luke have to keep their relationship, not to mention their recent engagement, on the down-low. They’ll disclose everything once they achieve what he calls “fuck you” status there, and if it gets them that big promotion to portfolio manager, they’re that much closer to being untouchable.
Then Emily gets a phone call in the wee hours: Their colleague needs to talk to her about a potential investment. The address turns out to be a mega-swank hotel bar at the end of a dark, rain-slicked urban alley — seriously, where the fuck are those saxophones?! — and her coworker isn’t there. Instead, she sees the firm’s founder (Eddie Marsan, doing the reptilian menace thing to a tee) sitting there, nursing a Scotch. He’s summoned Emily to let her know that she will be the next P.M. Both he and his second-in-command (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) expect big things from her. She’s the new golden child. And yes, Emily is also now Luke’s boss. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Losing your company millions of dollars because you favored your fiancé’s bad hunch over your better instincts, however, does require an apology.
From here, Fair Play balances the needs of a proper corporate nail-biter (will a Hail-Mary investment restore reputations or sink careers?) and a piece of filthy, sweaty, Michelin-starred trash. Jealousy rears its ugly head, as does danger, rough sex, revenge by strip-club lap dances, professional humiliation, cunnilingal quid pro quo, and even rougher sex. Dialogue like “Well, I guess I’ll just have to lie here and fuck myself” is ripened to perfection. Dynevor wears her queen-of-the-concrete-jungle bona fides among the alpha dude-bros like a boss, while we the moviegoing public applaud the fact that someone has finally figured out what to do with Ehrenreich in terms of his being a leading man. Forget making him a junior Harrison Ford; this stubbly, square-jawed star is really the second coming of Michael Douglas, all bullish, bruised masculinity and Chernobyl-level mantrums. Given that the movie begins with blood, you can safely assume it will end with it, too.
Last year, everyone had their hopes pinned on the long-delayed celeb-tabloid fodder that was Deep Water as the resurrector of old-school erotic thrillers, and that a wave of troublesome tales of men and women behaving extremely badly and tres carnally would follow in its brackish wake. That didn’t happen, to say the least. And while no one can say whether Domont’s contribution to the dormant genre will inspire a fresh round of fatal attractions and jagged edges, Fair Play has, at the very least, given us the sort of date-night-debate plutonium that we’d been missing. No less than Karina Longworth, who devoted an entire season of her marvelous “You Must Remember This” podcast to ’80s and ’90s erotic thrillers, has given this the seal of approval, with the added disclosure (pun intended) that her partner Rian Johnson’s company produced it.
Yet you don’t need to be an Adrian Lyne scholar to appreciate what this movie brings to the table, especially in an era when a well-balanced cinematic diet is near impossible and movies made for adults are now 10 hours long and called TV shows. It’s easy to see why this made such a splash at Sundance, where audience members screaming “Oh, shit!” were a constant at public screenings. May it have an equally enthusiastic reception outside of the festival. See it with someone you want to have sex in a five-star hotel restroom with.