High-stakes financial thriller in which a sexy young couple go to war after she is promoted over him

Fair Play

Source: Sundance

Fair Play

Dir/scr: Chloe Domont. US. 2023. 113mins

An indictment of capitalism and fragile masculinity, Fair Play follows a would-be power couple who learn how tenuous their bond is once one is promoted — and the other, the man, can’t handle it. Writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature debut is set in the world of high-stakes New York finance, with Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich playing the recently-engaged pair who work for the same elite firm, their love turning into a nightmare exacerbated by insecurity and competitiveness. Wilfully provocative — and going to extremes to make its points — this psychological drama sometimes strains credibility, but its poisonous cauldron of greed and contempt proves arresting. 

 Fair Play mercilessly dissects this couple’s implosion

Fair Play screens as part of Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition, becoming the first huge deal of the festival when it went to Netflix for a reported $20m. The film seems certain to spark debate, the story playing out like a cinematic adaptation of the endless trend pieces about what happens to men when their girlfriends or wives make more money than they do. Both Dynevor and Ehrenreich are compelling, even when Fair Play enters shaky narrative terrain. 

As the picture begins, Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich) are madly in love, having passionate sex in the bathroom at Luke’s brother’s wedding — right before Luke gets down on one knee to propose. They couldn’t be happier, although they have to keep their relationship secret at their workplace: the investment house where they both work as analysts doesn’t allow co-workers to date. They hear a rumour that Luke is about to be promoted to portfolio manager, only for Emily to discover that she, instead, has been tapped for the role — with Luke becoming her subordinate. 

Initially, Luke expresses his joy at his fiancee’s promotion, with Emily insisting that she’ll suggest to their bosses that he should be promoted next. But early on Fair Play hints that such a happy ending isn’t likely, for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, once Emily becomes a portfolio manager, she learns from the head of the firm, the coldblooded Campbell (Eddie Marsan), that Luke isn’t respected — and that he’s waiting for Luke to give up and resign any day. Emily doesn’t tell Luke that, wanting to spare his feelings, but she notices a growing resentment in him that’s being directed at her — as if her good news is some sort of comment on his failing as a man in the cutthroat world of finance. 

Domont, who’s directed episodes of Ballers and Billions, films this couple’s relationship with a dispassionate air, seeing in them two people who have great sex and want to be rich. While Emily and Luke have an electric chemistry, there’s also something a little transactional about the way they see the world, which undercuts the seemingly romantic notion of them getting engaged and preparing to start their lives together. And while the shift is abrupt, Ehrenreich does a good job conveying Luke’s wounded pride, which gets progressively worse until he starts undermining Emily’s confidence, suggesting that she got the promotion only because she’s an attractive woman in a firm dominated by men. Because they’ve been together for two years, he knows how to push her buttons, and soon Emily begins to doubt herself — in a sense, she (like her fiance) is facing the pressure to be an alpha male around the office. 

Over the course of two hours, Fair Play becomes more of Emily’s story, as we see Luke’s downward spiral from her perspective. At first, she wants to help build him up, but as Luke becomes more petulant and accusatory — believing he was cheated out of the promotion — she begins to see him as an adversary. For a film that starts off with a wedding proposal, Fair Play mercilessly dissects this couple’s implosion, unafraid to watch as Emily and Luke go to war on one another. The tonal switch may give some viewers whiplash, but that seems to be by design: Domont wants to illustrate just how little this seemingly happy pair have in common once money, power and status get in the way.

In its final stretches, the film takes some audacious risks to highlight just how toxic this relationship has become. Not all of these twists are navigated seamlessly, although one suspects that the heightened emotions are Domont’s way of creating a worst-case scenario for lovebirds who thought they had the world on a string. Ehrenreich is suitably pathetic as this profoundly weak man, while Dynevor — playing the more kindhearted of the two — embodies the steeliness her character will eventually develop. Most weddings include a vow for the couple to be steadfast in sickness and in health — they rarely talk about what can happen when wealth and shifting power dynamics wreak such havoc.  

Production companies: T-Street, Star Thrower

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: Tim White, Trevor White, Allan Mandelbaum, Ben LeClair, Leopold Hughes    

Cinematography: Menno Mans

Production design: Steve Summersgill

Editing: Franklin Peterson 

Music: Brian McOmber

Main cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian de Souza, Patrick Fischler