Sundance 2023: ‘Fair Play’ is a stellar, breathless indictment of the ‘nice guy’

Sundance 2023: ‘Fair Play’ is a stellar, breathless indictment of the ‘nice guy’

It’s been an interesting few years for men to watch themselves being depicted in movies. Especially since the #MeToo movement made an entire spectrum of bad behaviour, ranging from feeble micro-aggressions in interpersonal relationships to full-blown sexual assault accusations at the workplace, a matter of public discourse. A colourful, complex character has emerged in these conversations: the ‘nice guy’. Someone who won’t blink before standing up for women’s rights and equality in public forums, but becomes a whole different beast behind closed doors.

One might gauge the tussle between childhood conditioning and recently-learned empathy, as they out themselves via subtle indications or blatant sexism. We saw such characters represented in Promising Young Woman (2020), closer home in Doctor G (2022) and recently in the horror-satire Barbarian (2022). All these characters seem vulnerable on the surface, but by the end of each film it becomes clear how innately selfish they are, obsessed with their curated public image.

There’s no person they will not turn on, no one they’ll not throw under the bus. All it takes is the most minor obstacle for the nice guy’s survival instincts to kick in. There’s similar commentary in Chloe Domont’s Fair Play, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, but it isn’t immediately apparent. What’s brilliant here is how the moment sneaks up on us.

Nightmare alley

Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) are passionately in love. The first time we meet them, they’re at his brother’s engagement party. He shows her off to his uncle, who humours them by calling her the “best looking girl in the room”. They proceed to the loo, where their attempt at torrid sex is unexpectedly cut short when a ring falls out of Luke’s pocket. He’s been planning to propose to Emily all day, and it finally takes place in a badly-lit public restroom. What seems like a “cute” fairytale anecdote, something the couple will tell their friends in a few years’ time with a huge smile on their faces, proves to be the start of a feature-length nightmare.

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Both Luke and Emily work together at a top-tier hedge fund, a setting repeatedly found to be the crime scene for the human race’s worst capitalist tendencies. Everyone is ‘valued’ based on the last number they brought through the door. It’s the kind of place where someone has to change their order from a ‘diet coke’ to a ‘Macallan 25’ — after registering their boss’s disapproval at the bar. Both Luke and Emily are ambitious analysts at the fund, with gigantic dreams of their own. When a position opens up at the near-top, Emily overhears some colleagues talking about how Luke might be tipped to take the job. They’re both excited as they celebrate their engagement and Luke’s shot at promotion, scheming how he would ‘help’ her come up the ranks and then they could announce their engagement to the office. An HR policy prevents any two employees at the fund from being in a relationship. Only, the table flips on the couple, when Emily is told that she is the one getting promoted.

A moment of sublime chaos

As anyone who might be privy to the many iterations of A Star Is Born, including Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973), we already know which way this film is headed. And yet, what’s startling about Domont’s film is for how long it cautiously convinces us that the film might go in a different direction. When Emily delivers the news to Luke that she’s been chosen for the job, she accompanies it with an apology. He says he’s happy for her, and gives her a hug.

However, it’s a tiny moment afterwards where Domont hints at the trickling resentment into the relationship. Luke, who couldn’t keep his hands off Emily when they were at the same ‘level’, quietly walks past her in the shower without so much as an acknowledgement. It’s such a micro moment in the bigger scheme of things, if it was ever brought up, it might be explained as ‘nothing’. But it’s also very clear that Luke’s suddenly feeling ill-at-ease with this new hierarchy in the relationship.

Before the promotion, even though Luke and Emily were at the same designation, they’d often talk about their future with Luke at the centre of it. It’s established through some scenes that Emily — from a small town in Long Island, who has funded her Ivy-league education through scholarships, and slowly worked her way up in major investment banks through sheer skill — still isn’t quite the underdog in the relationship. Luke, who seems to come from money, sees himself as the one needing Emily’s “support”. He’s the prodigal son whose dreams are worthy of the spotlight, and obsesses over his accomplishments, never taking the time to acknowledge how Emily made it to the same position, despite coming from far more challenging circumstances.

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The promotion is the first time Luke is clearly told that Emily is more valued than he is, and even though he pretends to be ‘okay’ about it — he feels more emasculated with each passing day. As she’s expected to show up for drinks with ‘the boys’ each night after work, she shows up drunk at home, night after night. Domont’s film is incredibly perceptive of both individuals, and their inner churnings. She realises that a relationship like Luke and Emily’s doesn’t simply catch fire one day, there are many tiny sparks that lead to it. The entire film is stacked with plot, and it’s Domont’s ability to treat the relationship drama like a ticking time bomb, is what gives the film its urgency.

America writer and director Chloe Domont.
America writer and director Chloe Domont. Photo: IMDB

In one of the great scenes in the film, we see a presentation of workplace etiquette and sexual harassment being drowned out by an employee gone berserk in their corner office, moments after he’s been fired. The employees outside the glass cabin look at the unhinged man like they were staring at a zoo animal. Similarly, repeated phone calls from Emily’s parents are intercut with another one of Emily and Luke’s living room squabbles, culminating in a moment of sublime chaos.

Unravelling of a relationship

Both Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor are first-rate as the film’s central couple, communicating with a twitch of an eye or hesitation around a text message. So much of the film’s brilliance lies with regards to their body language around each other as the disquiet between the couple leads to the complete unravelling of their relationship.

Fair Play is in the same vein as other ‘financial thrillers’ from the last decade like The Big Short (2015), Margin Call (2011), but the gender dynamics make it an even more compelling study of ‘Wall Street finance bros’. Domont’s film starts off in a public restroom where someone remarks in jest how it looks like a ‘crime scene’ and then goes on to weave that detail into a scene towards the end of the film, also taking place in a restroom of a hotel. Even though it has echoes of the catharsis that Promising Young Woman did, it feels more personal and legitimate here, given the time we’ve spent studying both Emily and Luke.

Fair Play reinforces a cynical outlook in the movies where, if you’re a “nice guy,” the world continues to be your oyster. And assertive women will always be at odds with frail masculinity.

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