Fair Play review: Romance gets real in an electrifying thriller

The death of the romantic comedy has been widely eulogized for at least a decade now, though fewer people seem to mourn for its twisted sister, the erotic thriller. Wherefore the bunny boilers and basic instincts of yore?

Adrian Lyne, once a master of the form (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful) attempted a return last year at 81 with the humid Ben Affleck–Ana de Armas noir Deep Water, but mostly ending up making us feel weird about snails; Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling doubled down on fever-dream style, and then forgot to bother with a cohesive storyline.

What the genre needed, maybe, was fresh blood. And it's there — literally, all over Alden Ehrenreich's face — in the opening scene of Fair Play, the nervy and often gratifyingly bonkers feature debut from 35-year-old director Chloe Domont (Ballers) that just sold to Netflix for a reported $20 million at the Sundance Film Festival this week.

Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich appear in Fair Play by Chloe Domont, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich appear in Fair Play by Chloe Domont, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ehrenreich is Luke, a boyishly handsome Yale grad who's crazy about Emily (erstwhile Bridgerton star Phoebe Dynevor) — so crazy he doesn't care at all about cream-colored silk and menstrual cycles, as we learn in the first five minutes. And with that bravura moment, Fair Play marks the spot: These pretty people will get raw. Not that anyone at their day jobs even knows Luke and Emily are a couple; they're both junior analysts at the same cutthroat New York hedge fund, so in the bullpen they pretend to be casual strangers.

As soon as one of them gets promoted to a manager's desk, they've agreed, they'll come out and announce their engagement. But when Emily — less privileged but more naturally gifted — unexpectedly gets there first, hairline fissures in their home life begin to crack and spread. Can this relationship survive a power shift that neither of them saw coming? Or maybe the better question is, should it?

Domont, who also penned the lean, crackling script, keeps the tension at a steady hum that becomes a buzzsaw. The last 20 minutes are harrowing, so freighted with increasingly unhinged possibilities that the movie threatens to run off the rails entirely several times. But both leads hang on, throwing themselves headlong into the tar pits of contemporary workplace politics and gender roles without being drawn into clumsy, one-dimensional ideas of victimhood or villainy.

There's some Gen-Z Wall Street, and a heavy whiff of HBO's Euphoria-for-finance-bros series Industry, in Fair Play's setting and tone. (Veteran British character actor Eddie Marsan is excellent as a ruthless master-of-the-universe type whose emotional reads on people like Luke and Emily come to him as easily — and disposably — as a spreadsheet). A few outrageous turns strain credulity in the final act, but the film (a Netflix release date has yet to be announced) still feels like something of a small miracle in 2023: a sexy, intelligent thriller for an adult audience. Grade: B+

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