On second thought, we may have let our collective nostalgia for erotic thrillers get a tad out of hand. Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play” seems, at least at the level of its inception, to be a thought exercise: what would it look like to make something like “Disclosure,” but from the perspective, and with sympathy towards, the Demi Moore character? That Barry Levinson adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller has aged like a bottle of milk on a radiator, a baffling stew of corporate intrigue, shitty special effects, and spectacularly terrible sexual politics.
But most of the iconic erotic thrillers were very much of their moment, so the idea of updating the subgenere to our current hothouse of sexual exploration – as wider acceptance of sex work and post-“Fifty Shades” openness about kink (specifically in relation to power) rub elbows with increased awareness of sexual harassment and gender discrimination – is a good one. Alas, “Fair Play” isn’t doing anything nearly that provocative.
It opens with a “Love to Love You Baby” needle drop, the very definition of writing a check you’d better be ready and willing to cash. And at first it seems like they might; the opening scenes are cheerfully explicit and playfully hot, as Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) hook up in the bathroom at his brother’s wedding. The actors have real, genuine chemistry, and the one-two-three of their initial encounter sets the table for a film that’s wild, unpredictable, and sexy.
It can’t live up to it. The actual plot mechanics soon grind into place – Emily and Luke have been dating and living together in secret, since they work together at a high-powered financial firm that forbids such relationships. They enjoy the little thrill of their secret office romance, of exchanging knowing glances between innocuous shop talk, and when they talk about work at home, it’s basically foreplay (“Now you’re afraid of danger? It used to turn you on.”)
That all changes when Emily leapfrogs over Luke for a lucrative promotion. “Congratulations, that’s amazing,” he says, flatly and unconvincingly, but her ascension (into a job he thought was his, no less) cools their white-hot sex life off with a quickness. Maybe it’s not so hot when the power dynamic shifts.
Or is it? Look, one must review the film that was made rather than the film one wishes was made, but it’s utterly baffling to tee up an erotic thriller and then immediately eliminate the eroticism. Shutting down the sexual element of the relationship seems like a giant missed opportunity, from both a narrative and thematic standpoint; Emily gets sexier, in costuming and carriage, the more she wins, and a filmmaker who was truly interested in the power dynamic between men and women would be wise enough to explore that. There are hints of what could have been, a line or two of loaded double meaning; “Do you want this or not,” she asks, about a work opportunity but also not just that, or her reply of “C’mon, I’ll do all the work” when he says he’s too tired for sex. For one brief, tantalizing scene, she takes control, demanding what she wants, what she believes she’s entitled to, but the scene is staged, quite unconvincingly, as a turn-off.
Instead, writer and director Domont takes the exponentially less interesting route: that Emily’s ascension not only emasculates him, but triggers his jealousy, as he becomes weirdly convinced that she screwed her way into the gig. “He didn’t try anything, right?” he demands, after a late night meeting with the big boss (Eddie Marsan), and she replies, convincingly, “I would have told you if he did,” but the male imagination can move in unfortunate directions, and that’s when they really start to go at each other.
“Bridgerton” star Dynevor is quite good (even if her British accent occasionally cameos), disarmingly putting across the character’s emotional and professional evolution. Ehrenreich handles the early scenes well, but is increasingly unable to carry off the character’s wild behavioral and motivational swings (though, in his defense, I’m not sure who could). Marsan is absolutely chilling as the kind of guy who hasn’t raised his voice since before these people were born, and hasn’t had to, and “Mad Men” alum Rich Sommer is delightfully oily as the boss’ right-hand man, who hypes him up so good he never has to worry about losing the gig.
Yet “Fair Play” is oddly and frustratingly conservative and reactionary in its sexual politics – and not quite willing to either subvert or grapple with that in a genuinely thought-provoking way. Domont’s script just turns into a series of victories, defeats, increasingly distracting narrative leaps, and ultimately silly turns of tone that seem designed to provoke whoops and sneers and cheers, “Fatal Attraction”-style red meat for an audience the picture clearly doesn’t respect. In those moments, “Fair Play” ultimately proves itself to be little more than the relic that it is. [C-]