Fair Play represents another of the current moment's Tales from the Workplace, although writer-director Chloe Domont is less interested in what's manufactured there than what folks get up to and get away with. As with Kitty Green's The Assistant, the new film's real subject is imbalances of power, and how merciless corporate thinking has come to infiltrate, arguably infect interpersonal relations. Luke and Emily (Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) are introduced as love's young dream: salaried, photogenic, secretly engaged junior employees at a New York finance firm. Domont invites us to watch as this dream is gradually shattered by the daily 5am alarm. Emily gets the promotion and pay rise Luke was angling for, leaving him to brood, take orders, and make dinner for one while she's at the stripjoint schmoozing with the company big boys. We reach decisively for one of Acme Industries' patented "Uh-Oh" signs after Luke loses his once-throbbing boner and starts using his extra alone time on the website of a business guru/men's rights activist - think Frank TJ Mackey's more online younger brother, big on "the rules". At the very least, any such sign would offer a refreshing change from the extravagant red flags suddenly crowding the screen.
Pay and power discrepancies remain a very real and very valid talking point in actual offices, but they surely beset more interesting and better rounded couples than this one. The Assistant - which now seems an even stronger film than it did at the time - put an entire industry, with its byzantine structure of abusers and enablers, on trial for ninety minutes. All that's really at stake in Fair Play is an exceptionally pallid relationship, the fate of two young kids who don't seem to have much else going on in their lives and might well appear nice but dull if you were introduced to them at a friend's birthday brunch. Arriving hot on the heels of Past Lives, here is 2023's second most prominent exhibition of counterproductive underwriting in the American independent cinema. The emptying out of character is one reason a pressing HR issue can become a matter of life and death - neither Luke nor Emily have anything else lined up to concern or distract themselves with - but it also means their aggressively cranked-up tiff forever seems more of a them problem than an us problem.
It's hardly the fault of Ehrenreich and Dynevor, who play this sub-Mamet material as it lies. They try to make the boiler-room jargon more involving; they grunt through cursory sex scenes that give the lie to the film's bizarrely wrongheaded critical framing as an erotic thriller of sorts. (Those early, glowing Sundance reviews - almost certainly a factor in Netflix snapping up the rights - only suggest certain colleagues were led astray by their own humiliation fetish.) They fret-type instant messages you won't be able to read on Netflix because your sofa's too far away from your telly; and they wait for Domont's dialogue to turn really sour. Mostly, they've been stuck with a job of writing that thinks it's enough to broach an issue, sensing that, after a quarter-century of paranoid Internet discourse, there are people out there who mistrust the opposite sex enough for Luke and Emily's behaviours to seem in some way credible. Between the powerdressing and 1994-era virtual reality, the old Michael Douglas/Demi Moore vehicle Disclosure was scarcely less ridiculous in its overview of the state of play between the sexes, but it had characters who both looked and felt like authentically conflicted grown-ups rather than pushovers and paper cutouts, which is why it retains a certain rewatchable heft. Domont's film, a memo in a maelstrom, really doesn't.
Fair Play is showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Netflix.