Power struggles, gender roles, and greed are the rusty, one-note themes in writer / director Chloe Domont‘s debut feature “Fair Play,” a film that is incredibly problematic from start to finish. Being lauded by some as a smart erotic thriller, this film is anything but. Domont has created a story where men have a primal nature to be threatened by successful, powerful women, which in turn leads to a repugnant slide into physical and sexual violence. It’s meant to be provocative, but it’s just plain odious and hateful.
Newly engaged Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) are struggling to keep their relationship a secret at the large financial firm where they both work. When an important promotion looms on the horizon, an overly confident Luke is certain that the job is all his. But when Emily gets the position instead and her status rises at the office, all hell breaks loose. Blinded by jealousy and ambition, their relationship begins to crumble under the cruelty and malice that the shifting dynamics have created. It’s only a matter of time before the volatile situation leads to total destruction.
It’s a simple plot that’s uninteresting, which makes the film very slow. Domonta’s script is confrontational and seems made specifically to push buttons and cause arguments, which does a disservice to any real and meaningful commentary. It feels like a hollow rehash of similar stories about misogyny and ambition that are set in the high-stress, cutthroat financial world, and whole inflated ego meets fragile manhood motif feels dated and sexist (it’s 2023, a time when it is not unusual for women to hold powerful jobs).
My real issue with the film is that not only is it strongly negative towards men, it’s also an anti-feminist narrative that’s masquerading as one of female empowerment. Emily’s shift to near-total control and domination in the relationship is not shown in a positive light (which is fine, because not all stories of strong women have to be), but the script focuses on Luke’s issues instead of her rise to power. There’s some truth to the topic of gender expectations and how societal roles seem created in a way that make men feel inadequate. No matter how much we celebrate how far we’ve come, there’s still that little sticking point about what it means to “be a man,” especially when it comes to wage earnings and a chosen profession.
I’m not defending toxic masculinity by any means, but the film feels distasteful and frustrating because of its slippery, dangerous message that implies women can’t be powerful unless men aren’t, especially when the story feeds into stereotypes by showing Emily emasculating Luke in the end. Is that truly what “empowerment” is, or how we should strive for it to be portrayed onscreen?
The same could be said for a very disturbing rape scene that takes the film to a much darker place, and that one act of physical, sexual violence negates any meaningful social commentary that came before.
Another major downfall of the film is the gross miscasting of the two leads. I didn’t believe either of them as successful Wall Street types or as lovers. This film couldn’t have been an easy task for Dynevor or Ehrenreich, as they were asked to portray to highly unlikable characters. But their lack of chemistry and uneven acting skills hurt the film.
Domont does get a few things right even with her stereotypical outlook, including the fact that Emily is smart in her position at work and Luke acts like an entitled jackass at a job that he didn’t earn. It’s one of the few gender theories in the film that rings true: women often have to work a lot harder than men to prove their worth at the office, and there always seems to be someone waiting in the wings to tear them down.
In the end, “Fair Play” is a simple story of an insecure man who has a problem with his fiancée having greater success in her career, and that conflict spills into their now-rocky relationship with an increasing level of spite and violence. Why so many think this film is “smart” or “groundbreaking” is beyond me. It’s dumb, dated, and borderline offensive to both men and women. Domont insults her audience almost as much as her characters insult each other.
By: Louisa Moore