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What happens when your secret fiancee becomes your boss? Find out in 'Fair Play'

A cutthroat power couple Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) end up in a power struggle in <em>Fair Play.</em>
Sergej Radovic
/
Netflix
A cutthroat power couple Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) end up in a power struggle in Fair Play.

Are straight cis men OK?

This is a question that's haunted generation after generation, in one way or another. It usually arises in the wake of major wars or progressive political and cultural movements. And it always finds its way into art, as creatives probe the dark recesses of rattled, insecure men who feel as though their dominance is threatened by the gains of others.

As evidenced by so many events and trend pieces of the last few years, we are presently in such a moment. Fair Play, the moody, unflinching feature debut of writer-director Chloe Domont, meets us here in titillating fashion: It's about Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), a conventionally attractive and career-minded heterosexual pair who embodies a surface-level version of the "power couple." They're young, horny for each other, and poised to make a ton of money working in finance. As the movie begins, they steal away from a wedding reception to have sex in a harshly lit bathroom, resulting in a laughable mishap and an impromptu marriage proposal in front of a toilet, after the engagement ring accidentally tumbles out of Luke's pocket.

So this is love.

But then one of them gets a promotion over the other at their cutthroat hedge fund – go ahead and guess which one ... why yes, you're absolutely correct, it's Emily – and things get awkward.

Luke and Emily (Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) have a hard time withstanding a dynamic shift in power at work in <em>Fair Play</em>.
Sergej Radovic / Netflix
/
Netflix
Luke and Emily (Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) have a hard time withstanding a dynamic shift in power at work in Fair Play.

Compounding this already-tenuous dynamic is the very nature of their romantic relationship. Emily and Luke's romance is a secret, and now he's both her secret lover and her direct report. (Outside of work, it's unclear if they have any semblance of a social life; as everything from Boiler Room to Industry has suggested, when not doing copious amounts of coke and hitting up strip clubs with colleagues, people in finance barely exist outside of shorting stocks and wooing big-time investors at all hours of the day.)

Luke, whether he's willing to admit it or not, begins a descent into crisis mode.

Fair Play is visually moody and stylish, with most scenes taking place indoors and in dark spaces with warm, golden-toned lighting (upscale bars, restaurants) or, in contrast, the depressing dull-gray of their austere office. To its benefit, the movie isn't as high-concept as some of its cinematic contemporaries in exploring the dangers of the wounded male ego; it's not rendered metaphorically through Gothic body horror, idyllic mid-century Americana, or an iconic children's toy. Instead, Domont crafts it as a blunt, withering workplace/domestic melodrama hybrid, an all-too-real depiction of the curdling of a relationship contaminated by intense ambition and jealousy.

On paper and in practice, Emily is a top-tier broker, an overachieving Harvard grad whose keen instincts about the market impress her gruff boss, Campbell, played gamely by Eddie Marsan. Luke, on the other hand, is merely coasting by. Nevertheless, Emily believes in Luke and is convinced she can help secure him the next promotion that arises; in her mind, they're in this together. That's not quite true.

The situation here is deliberately gendered, but Fair Play still manages subtle characterizations. Luke isn't a cartoonish misogynist. Ehrenreich convincingly depicts him as someone caught grappling with the experience of having two distinct and wholly relatable reactions at the same time: happiness for someone else and disappointment for one's self. In this case, that tension manifests in escalating digs and jabs. He begins to retreat from Emily outside of the office and becomes obsessed with the hacky self-help musings of a motivational speaker. (His confidence is zapped, but he maintains a stranglehold on his sense of entitlement – the gall.) He's snippier; the sex dries up.

<em>Fair Play</em> is a blunt, withering workplace/domestic melodrama hybrid, an all-too-real depiction of the curdling of a relationship contaminated by intense ambition and jealousy. Above, Alden Ehrenreich as Luke.
/ Courtesy of Netflix
/
Courtesy of Netflix
Fair Play is a blunt, withering workplace/domestic melodrama hybrid, an all-too-real depiction of the curdling of a relationship contaminated by intense ambition and jealousy. Above, Alden Ehrenreich as Luke.

Emily isn't simply a victim of patriarchy, though; Dynevor plays her as steely and strategic in that ruthless male-dominated work environment, willing to let sexism and verbal harassment from her colleagues wash over her as she plots to ascend the ranks. At home, it's another story, where she confronts Luke's insecurities head-on, pushing back against his increasingly bitter demeanor. In a way, their story reverberates like a corporate world A Star Is Born, except the rising female powerhouse refuses to let her spiraling partner bring her down, even as she fights desperately to try and save their relationship.

Luke's resentment builds believably to a nightmarish crescendo that has striking consequences for their relationship and their positions at the firm – it's both a completely familiar and utterly astonishing outcome to behold, one that's played out in relationships in some form of the extreme since, well, forever. Of course, it feels especially acute now. The draw of Fair Play lies in the alignment of that inevitability with Domont's dynamic storytelling vision. It more than meets this umpteenth era of male "crisis."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.