Fair Play (2023)
What happens when a newly-engaged couple faces a challenge in the form of her career going better than his? That is the expertly crafted conundrum in which we find Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), a loving, happy, young, white heterosexual couple who happen to both be investment analysts in a Wall Street firm in NYC for which dog-eat-dog is not a harsh enough description of the work environment. From writer and director Chloe Domont comes a grippingly intense film that is part drama, part thriller, part love story gone horribly wrong. Fair Play reveals the enmeshment of Emily’s and Luke’s work and home lives as we see the development of their serious relationship in their move towards marriage. But unlike other films, the relationship problems Emily and Luke encounter are not about outside forces like the potential in-laws, or the boss, but the forces of discontent brewing within their relationship when she gets the promotion that he assumed was a lock.
The film is a masterclass in all the ways that women are still taught – we’re talking the twenty-first century now – to stifle, downplay, and hide their light, ambitions, and power so that men – not strangers, but the ones in their lives who should have their backs – can feel better about themselves. This ugly green monster tends to rear its wart-spotted head at times when men are not doing as well as the women in their lives. Sad? Yes. But also, as the film clearly demonstrates, catastrophic in many ways for a woman and for the relationship which, of course is not supposed to be based upon a man’s assumptions that his power, ambitions, and light are better, bigger, and brighter than those of his female partner.
When we first meet Emily and Luke they are at Luke’s brother’s wedding, a sure sign that their relationship is serious since men do not typically take their girlfriends to meet the family, especially in situations where lifetime commitment is the focus of the day. When Luke issues what can only be called a botched marriage proposal, Emily is shocked but thrilled and the passion and love of the pair seem obvious. She says yes, of course. Interestingly, Domont uses Emily’s period, or more specifically the untimely arrival of her menstrual cycle at the wedding as a way to demonstrate their sexual and emotional intimacy. But the blood stains on their clothes and in their bed after their sex acts also work as a sign of foreboding. Bad things are coming.
The movie centres around their work lives and how they attempt to negotiate their newfound engaged status in a office environment where their relationship would be grounds for dismissal. The solution? Emily removes her engagement ring and leaves it on the kitchen counter before they head to work, separately, that is. In the elevator once there, they pretend that they did not just see each other over breakfast less than an hour before and exchange pleasantries like they barely know each other. But an office development soon tests the very fabric of their relationship. When one of the managers gets the boot Emily excitedly shares the news with Luke that she overheard that he was next in line for the promotion. But as we soon find out, it was a rumour without basis.
When Emily gets the promotion, instead of being thrilled for herself and excited to share the news with her man, she is clearly divided in her emotions and spends far too much time considering his feelings, reactions, and how to placate him. Luke’s expression says it all. Although the “right” words of support and encouragement come out of his mouth, when he embraces Emily the closeup on his face lets us know that his heart is not in it. It soon becomes clear what Luke really feels, which is that the job was rightfully his. But what is disturbing (and realistic given the nature of misogyny) is how the film makes it clear that Luke’s belief in his superior suitability for the job has nothing to do with his education, preparation, or performance at work, but rather with his white maleness.
As the plot progresses Luke unravels, first in subtle almost undetectable ways, and then in spectacular “make a scene” at the office ones in which he seems intent to elevate himself at Emily’s expense. The first signs appear when Luke refuses to act on Emily’s directions (she’s his new boss after all) resulting in a spectacular and potentially career ending loss of $25 million dollars. Later, he belittles her “cupcake” attire and questions her participation in work socializing as playing at being one of the boys. But as his seething and petulant demeanour makes clear, there is nothing wrong with Emily’s work, dress, or office interactions. The problem resides in Luke’s drive to demean his fiancé because of his desire to fill her shoes.
For Emily’s part, we watch as she struggles to balance the new work dynamics and social realities of the white boys club of financial management, finding it impossible to decline midnight and 2:00 am calls from the boss and playing along with a backhanded request to celebrate a big win at the office with a trip to a strip club. When we see her at the strip club with the boys from work, she plays the role of the woman who can “hang,” meaning she drinks like a fish and participates in the sexualization of the strippers by ordering lap dances. But while her “performance” wins her points at work, Luke is increasingly threatened growing angrier and more aggressive as he criticizes her and what he sees as her apparent desperation to fit in. His glimpse of her $500,000 plus bonus cheque certainly doesn’t help either.
Through the lens of his jealousy, he can’t see or does not want to see Emily’s steeper climb and harder path to getting and maintaining her newfound position in management. And this although he has a front row seat to witness the tried-and-true sexist stereotypes being leveled behind her back by formerly collegial male employees. All Luke can see is his sidelined desires and ambitions which we soon come to realize were based upon completely unrealistic expectations about his abilities and value to the company. You see, what Emily comes to know and initially withholds from Luke to spare his feelings, is that he was hired as a favour to the boss’ friend and not on his own merit. Therefore, his perception of his abilities, talents, and value to the company is utterly unrealistic.
The drama unfolds as we see Luke continue to unravel in ways which trash his relationship, and worse, trash Emily, in his attempts to undermine her newfound position and status. In one scene at the office, he aggressively interrupts an important meeting with a potential client having a complete meltdown and outing Emily for being in a relationship with him. But since the fact of their relationship, against HR policy of course, could sink them both, it is clear that he is ready to blow up his own life in order to take her down with him. Later at the engagement party that Emily’s proud Long Island parents have thrown for them, his venom is on full display in front of their assembled guests with his behaviour descending into the vicious and illegal when they are alone. But it is the physical manifestation of Luke’s violence and hatred which propels Emily out of her love at all costs stupor.
As the narrative unfolds, we come to see that Luke is, absolutely not, the supportive, sensitive, loving man he had pretended to be when everything was going his way; that is when he was the one on track for the big promotion. The tragedy that the movie amplifies is that Emily’s promotion should have been the start of a wonderful life for the pair in exactly the same way that they had expected his supposedly sure-thing promotion would have been. What sticks with you is the honesty of Ehrenreich’s portrayal of an abusive, condescending, jealous fiancé who subtly and eventually not so subtlety roots for and actively plots the demise of his fiancé’s dreams. What also resonates is how Dynevor’s expertly conveys the inner turmoil of a woman fixated on her partner – his desires, his loss, and his career – over her own, someone working constantly to repair his wounded ego and failing career, trying to create opportunities for him which he has not earned and for which the boss does not deem him worthy. Indeed, the sad thing about Fair Play is how accurately it depicts the contours of the sleezy, old white boys club, a misogyny that permeates the workplace, and of course, is a facet of the sexist and entitled logic of men, even the so-called “good ones” like Luke.