By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Gender politics and office politics crash into each other with head-on ferocity in “Fair Play,” a perversely provocative and shamelessly entertaining new film being shown in theaters and on Netflix.
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are introduced having sex-a-la-Sonny Corleone at a wedding, i.e., a lustful secret coupling just out of sight of the other guests. However, it ends sweetly with him offering her an engagement ring.
The next morning, at their shared Chinatown apartment, she discreetly leaves the ring at home. Why? Because they both work at the same hedge fund company where personal relationships between employees aren’t allowed.
What is allowed is cut-throat competition; before the first coffee break, an exec is ousted, leaving an open office and an open spot in the corporate hierarchy. Emily hears a rumor, it’ll go to Luke, and they celebrate with champagne (and more sex).
Unexpectedly, the promotion goes to Emily.
“Congratulations,” says he.
“I’m sorry,” says she.
And that, pretty much, is the movie in a nutshell. In an era of supposed gender equality, there are still some pretty severe repercussions when she becomes his boss. Since no one, including the Big Boss (exquisitely played by Eddie Marsan in a minor Logan Roy key), knows about their relationship, she gets to hear the higher-ups’ less-than-glowing evaluation of Luke (He’ll eventually get the message and either quit or jump out a window). And he gets to hear their co-workers’ ugly behind-her-back assessments (she slept with Marsan; she’s a human-resources token, etc.)
And so, it goes. But the real bloodshed, as presciently indicated by that first sex scene, is outside the office. He tries being 21st-century-male supportive. She tries being 21st-century-female gracious. Even so, they end up locked in a struggle as vicious as anything we saw in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Writer/director Chloe Domont, here making her feature debut, has a shrewd, unforgiving eye for both her protagonists. He may go to the mattresses first (to continue the “Godfather” references), with comments about how she dresses and some analyst advice that backfires. Was it a mistake or intentional sabotage?
But she’s a fighter as well, going out with her executive bros to a strip club where the guys swap anecdotes worthy of alleged Brett Kavanaugh misbehavior. Business, we’re reminded, is still mostly a man’s game, played by male rules.
Unfortunately, the film edges into melodramatic histrionics in its final third.
But “Fair Play” gets so much right and goes out on so many gender-trope limbs, that you can’t help but admire it. Much credit is due Domont, but her stars deserve something akin to a standing ovation. They embrace their true romance and their battle-royal behavior with equal fearlessness and insight. Their performances are as chillingly compelling as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road.”
Those on both sides of the gender gap may complain “Fair Play” doesn’t play fair to either Emily or Luke. Still, the picture goes where nothing else in recent memory has gone before, taking us far beyond the workplace antics of something like “Fatal Attraction.” And it does so without boiling a single bunny.