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You don’t hear “erotic thriller” tossed around as much anymore.
Who knows why. Some people think the pendulum has swung back in a more puritanical direction and that Hollywood is afraid of sex. But these things are cyclical. Romcoms and horror movies fall in and out of favor, too.
The 1980s and ’90s were a kind of high-water mark for the erotic thriller: “Body Heat,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct,” “The Last Seduction” — the list goes on. Can those kinds of movies still be made today?
Sure, why not?
That seems to be the question writer and director Chloe Domont is answering with “Fair Play,” her debut feature. It’s an interesting throwback, in a way. And if you like squirming as two attractive people pivot from intense sex to even more intense arguments and fights, it’s kind of fun.
It’s also an examination of power dynamics in and out of the office, as well as what is expected of women if they want to succeed (become men, basically).
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After an awkward encounter in the bathroom at his brother’s wedding, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) proposes to Emily (Phoebe Dynevor, excellent). As “encounter in the bathroom” might suggest, they are hot and heavy in love, so Emily says yes.
But they have a secret.
The two live together, but they’re hush-hush about their relationship. They have to be: They’re coworkers at a cutthroat brokerage firm and inter-office romance is forbidden. More than that, it seems impossible. It’s such a competitive, toxic, finance-bro workplace it’s surprising anyone who sets foot in the door can stand anyone else.
It’s the kind of place where, when the bosses come for a project manager who isn’t cutting it, he freaks out and trashes his office and computer with a golf club. As he’s being dragged out, the jokes and the gossip about who will replace him have already started.
Emily overhears someone say they heard Luke will get the promotion. She’s thrilled for him. He’s devoted everything to his job and he wants it.
And then Emily gets it.
Luke doesn’t bat an eye. He can’t in the office, but even at home he says all the right things. She deserves this, he’s happy for her. But is he? Ehrenreich, always good in films like “Hail, Caesar!” and “Oppenheimer,” does a lot with wounded eyes, or a slight hesitation in his voice.
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Chloe Domont has ideas beyond making an erotic thriller
Things go about as you’d expect from there, if what you expect is the worst. Emily’s promotion eats away at Luke. What’s clear to everyone but him is that Emily is simply better at the job than he is. He takes dumb risks to try to prove himself. She has to clean up his mess.
In a funny bit, Luke invests in an absurd business-training program, in which the charlatan behind it assumes anyone dumb enough to pay for this has been wronged in some way. He preaches fighting back, taking control, writing your own story. Luke is the last person who needs to hear this, although probably so is everyone else who buys in.
Emily, meanwhile, despite her obvious talent, has to throw back late-night drinks with the members of the boys club and suffer withering, sexist insults from the boss, Campbell (Eddie Marian, at his lizard-like best). But these are sacrifices she’s willing to make to get ahead and stay there.
Offers to help out Luke make him feel worse.
Then there is the matter of the upcoming engagement party.
A feel-good romance, it’s not. A feel-bad one, more like. But Domont has loftier ideas in mind, and in “Fair Play,” she effectively gets them across.
‘Fair Play’ 3.5 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Director: Chloe Domont.
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan.
Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity, and sexual violence.
How to watch: In theaters Friday, Sept. 29. Streaming on Netflix Friday, Oct. 6.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'Fair Play' review: Sex, power, money collide with predictable results