(Bloomberg) -- There’s a specific itch that Fair Play, the new thriller released by Netflix, wants to scratch. It aims to evoke the sexy, sordid cinema that was all the rage in the 1980s and ’90s. Think: Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct—battle-of-the-sexes narratives doused in blood.
Frequently, Fair Play, from first-time feature director Chloe Domont, succeeds. It’s moody and tense, and it features captivating performances from its leads, Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor. But it’s peppered with false moments that undercut the experience, repeatedly pulling the viewer out of the action.
Netflix bet big on Fair Play, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. The excitement around the project led the streamer to buy distribution rights for around $20 million. It will hit theaters on Sept. 29 before heading to the streaming service on Oct. 6, where it should capture an audience tantalized by a grimy tale of romance gone wrong.
The movie opens with our central couple—Emily (Dynevor—who, it turns out, can do more than look doe-eyed on Bridgerton) and Luke (Ehrenreich, best known as the erstwhile Han Solo of Solo: A Star Wars Story)—deliriously infatuated with one another. During a party with his family members, the two sneak to the bathroom to hook up, and he ends up proposing.
The catch? Their relationship is mostly a secret. These hot commodities work at a powerful hedge fund, One Crest Capital, and anything other than a collegial relationship would violate strict rules against employee fraternization. Matters become even more complicated when Emily gets the promotion both of them assumed would go to Luke. As she becomes her lover’s boss, his adjustment to the new status quo turns ugly.
The initially subtle, eventually severe ways in which Luke acts out are where Domont’s screenplay is strongest. His praise for Emily begins to curdle as his fiancée puts tasks on his desk and gets to fraternize with the office higher-ups and spend late nights drinking with the head honcho, Campbell (Eddie Marsan, with a cartoonish New York accent).
Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Luke is especially chilling. This man, who was madly in love with a woman when they were on the same professional level, grows progressively more sullen as he’s left out of her advancement.
For Emily, what should be a triumphant climb up the corporate ladder is marred by a combination of guilt and growing annoyance. At first she plots to get him a promotion, too, so they can once again be on a level playing field, but it soon becomes clear that his failings at work are a liability. Slowly, she begins to unravel as she tries to balance her new career with her truculent, evidently inferior spouse.
Yet, outside of the confines of these two characters, the film stumbles. None of the actors are able to make the financial chatter believable, and the script doesn’t, either. Dynevor is at her most uncomfortable when delivering garbled financial jargon, itself too vague to be plausible. The business backdrop seems arbitrary, and the bros who work at One Crest are cookie-cutter throwaways.
Luke and Emily’s story could have played out in any intensely competitive workplace, especially since we never really understand what draws them to (or qualifies them for) the world of high finance.
These would-be masters of the universe isolate themselves in a grungy apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. And while Emily eventually starts to embrace the high-rolling lifestyle of her new peers, Luke seems to eschew it entirely, beyond the suits he puts on for work each day. (Neither of them have an existence outside of work—which, in a sense, is the most believable part of the entire movie.) It’s briefly implied that Emily came from humble beginnings and that Luke is a child of privilege, yet that element of their dynamic remains unexplored.
Money itself feels entirely conceptual in Fair Play, much the way the locations, minus some establishing shots, don’t feel like New York. (The movie was shot in Serbia, which unfortunately shows.) Despite all that, it’s easy to get sucked into this tale, which is alluringly sexy—until it’s very much not. Consider that itch (mostly) scratched.
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