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Sleeping With the Enemy

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Fair Play (2023)

Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) is supposed to be smart. She is the only woman analyst on the trading floor of her finance organization (the details of which aren’t really important, though it’s rare for a finance company to be so blind to gender optics these days) but she doesn’t know two things. Firstly, men in finance are the most gossipy and self-serving backstabbers on the planet, capable of making million-dollar gambles based on nothing more than a feeling and a few columns on a spreadsheet, and generally prepared to shank their grandmothers if there is a commission in it. Secondly, while she earned her position by being exceptional at her job, her fellow analyst Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) was a nepo hire, only maintained on payroll because somebody owed his brother a favor, which Emily somehow never realized. “Fair Play” only works if the very smart Emily is inexplicably stupid about these two things. The opening sequence, of a sex scene at a wedding reception which breaks new ground in how menstruation is shown on film, is meant to explain why: Luke and Emily have been in a secret relationship for so long and so seriously that Luke proposes right there on the bathroom floor. Emily accepts, which is the beginning of the worst week of her life, as she learns what every professional woman should already know: No office dick is worth the office drama.

One final nitpick before we examine the film as shown at the Sundance Film Festival on its own terms: if no one in human resources noticed that Luke and Emily live at the same address, whoever reconciles the car service invoices would have, since Emily is regularly picked up from Luke’s front door in Chinatown instead of where the company thinks she lives, with her parents on Long Island. And even without those giant mistakes, there is no way, none, that another analyst as sly as Rory (an excellent Sebastian de Souza) would never have noticed anything between Emily and Luke, both of whom he is within 10 feet of for at least 70 hours a week, until now. Steve Summersgill’s production design is highly accurate, both for the office and Luke and Emily’s comfortably low-end apartment, which helps with the tone. What writer-director Chloe Domont is actually exploring is how Emily’s skills and Luke’s entitlement level out the playing field between them, until a shock firing and an unexpected promotion suddenly tip the field in Emily’s favor.

Emily learns of her promotion to portfolio manager via a late-night summons from Rory to meet the company’s C.E.O., Campbell (Eddie Marsan), for a drink. On arrival, Rory is gone and Campbell is reading an essay on finance Emily had published when she was a teenager. He speaks unusually highly of Emily’s abilities, and it’s a mark of respect for Mr. Marsan that for someone with Campbell’s terrifying reputation, there is no whisper of any impropriety other than the meeting’s timing. Luke is beside himself with jealousy when she comes home, though of course he says all the right things. But he immediately spends thousands of dollars on a self-actualization package based on right-wing talking points, and soon is making snide, sexualized insults when Emily staggers home after a long night drinking with her new peers. (Costume designer Kate Forbes does an outstanding job with Emily, even if she puts the men in too many blue suits for realism.) Mr. Ehrenreich, who is too old for the part, does a wonderful job of showing how Luke’s easy, charming outlook curdles into something gruesome when he is denied something he thinks belongs to him, but unfortunately he never makes Luke’s love for Emily believable; this is also a weakness of the script. Ms. Dynevor does much better work; Emily’s love for Luke is just as palpable as her professional excellence. But her mother (Geraldine Somerville), with whom she is in constant contact, is a nightmare: always sniping about Emily being busy, and immediately arranging an engagement party in conjunction with Luke’s family without Emily’s knowledge or consent. If this is a happy life, you can keep it.

Worse, the drama between Luke and Emily is an after-school special about how boyfriends get jealous if their girlfriends earn more money than then, how male colleagues resort to base insults if they resent their female peer’s achievements, and how a boyfriend-colleague combined is the worst sort of animal. If the lesson is Emily should never have shat where she eats, the point is overdone; if the lesson is men are pigs, the point’s a bore; if the final scene is meant to be serious instead of grand guignol, the point’s ridiculous. It’s worse because we never see Luke except through Emily’s eyes, which makes it weirder that their huge confrontation, which takes place in the bathroom of the engagement party – with both Luke and Emily’s entire extended families, specifically their mothers, in screaming distance – operates as if the workplace is the only place where the consequences kick in. What? But this is a movie where a man is prepared to relinquish his severance check for the chance to smash up his office with a golf club, as other people lower their blinds so as not to see his embarrassment. (This also happens in “Margin Call,” a vastly superior movie about the world of finance, which makes the exquisitely smart decision to ignore the personal lives of its workers.)

But “Fair Play’s” greatest mistake is making Emily’s life outside of work revolve around Luke. When Campbell gives her a coveted dinner reservation, and Luke sulkily declines to join her, Emily goes to the fancy restaurant by herself. Did she really not have a friend she’s overdue catching up with, or a mentor she owes a thank you, or someone in public relations she’s keen to impress as they plan out her strategy? Instead, we have several scenes of Emily smoking alone on break, staring at her reflection instead of texting the group chat her exciting news or commenting on her friends’ baby pics. For a female director to deny her female heroine the succor of female friends is a surprising choice, especially when, as already observed, her mother’s exhausting. All the greatest movies about women’s professional ascendancy in Manhattan, “Working Girl” and “Baby Face” first among equals, surrounded their heroines with other female colleagues. But those were movies made for women; and “Fair Play” has been made for, well, it’s not clear exactly. Anyone who knows about finance will roll their eyes. Anyone who works with men and women together will shudder at the simplistic picture this movie paints. And anyone who is thinking of dating the nepo hire they work with will think twice.

But why did Luke the nepo hire take up with Emily in the first place? Either “Fair Play” doesn’t know, or doesn’t feel the need to tell us. If he really loved her, then he is just as stupid as she is, which seems unlikely. If he was using her from the jump, their entire relationship is based on a lie and the way things shake out is much, much worse than it looks. By not bothering to tell us – which the bloody sex scene does not – “Fair Play” has a glitch in the formula not even the dullest analyst can overlook. It’s a pity when something so smart ends up as something so dumb. Especially when there’s a much smarter movie in here just screaming to get out.


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