‘Fair Play’ Review: A Disappointingly Limp Erotic Thriller
If there was any justice in the world, the rise of streaming would spark revivals of the genres that the traditional studios have abandoned — i.e. pretty much all of the ones that don’t involve superheroes or science-fiction. The erotic thriller (or really any picture that deals with matters of sexuality in a serious way) seems like exactly the sort of a movie that’s crying out for more attention on these platforms, which can be enjoyed in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home. So something like Fair Play, a thriller with a few modern twists, is a welcome addition on Netflix for that reason alone. I just wish it were a better execution of a very promising idea.
The idea: Financial analysts Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are a power couple in the making. They work together at a high-powered New York City hedge fund, dealing in stock transactions worth tens of millions of dollars. Unbeknownst to their co-workers, Emily and Luke are also a couple away from the office. As the film begins, Luke awkwardly proposes to Emily at a wedding, and she happily accepts. When their colleagues aren’t looking, they have an extremely active sex life. It seems like they’ve got it all figured out.
Reader, they do not have it all figured out. Turnover at their investment firm is high, and when Luke’s boss gets canned, Luke figures he should be in line to replace him. Instead, the company’s head honcho (Eddie Marsan) gives the job to Emily — meaning Luke has not only missed out on a promotion he believes he deserves, he now reports to his fiancé.
On paper, it’s the perfect setup for an exploration of gender and power dynamics in the modern workplace; a Disclosure without the incredibly silly finale involving bad virtual reality. But while Fair Play is definitely less silly than Disclosure it’s not much more serious — and it might actually be a lot less provocative. As over the top as ’90s thrillers were, at least they were admirably edgy in their themes (and, yes, sometimes pretty sexy as well).
In Fair Play, everything about this story feels like a fait accompli. Emily’s promotion doesn’t so much poison her relationship with Luke as it spontaneously combusts it; instead of watching their gradual decline, Luke almost immediately becomes a distant, resentful monster. Within minutes, he’s lost his confidence at work and in the bedroom, and becomes consumed with the teachings of a toxic self-help guru he finds on the internet. There’s very little suspense where things are headed, and not much tension.
It also feels a little disconnected from the world of Wall Street it’s supposedly exposing. Most of the key scenes involving Emily and Luke’s jobs proceed in similar fashion: A bunch of macho finance bros sit around a big conference table monologuing about fictional stocks — until Emily inevitably interrupts with some shocking information about some new development that only she has heard about, and everyone else in the room acts like a bomb just exploded at their feet. Fair Play was also largely shot in Belgrade, and takes place in a handful of swanky restaurants and shiny, glass-walled offices. The real New York flavor vital to this story is mostly missing.
Dynevor and Ehrenreich are both very easy on the eyes, and when the story allows — which is not that often — they do have chemistry together. Their final scenes crackle with a darker and more disturbing energy as well. But Fair Play’s middle section gives neither of them very much to do beyond a repetitive series of clashes, some passive-aggressive, some aggressive-aggressive, where Emily continues to climb the corporate ladder and Luke sinks deeper into self-loathing.
The mere existence of Fair Play makes me happy; this is exactly the kind of movie Netflix and its competitors should make more often. But if they made them a little more intense and surprising, I would not complain.