Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Guilty Pleasure Without the Pleasure: Fair Play

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play.

There’s nothing wrong with the kind of movie Fair Play purports to be, but there’s everything wrong with what it is. Written and directed by Chloe Domont, this thriller (which premiered at Sundance last January) came up in the media feed as a Netflix attention-getter, “guilty pleasure,” “nail-biter.” A few clicks revealed decent notices, one or two from critics who are not completely negligible, and the synopsis – two Manhattan stockbrokers, lovers and coworkers, enter into an escalating war of wills – sounded okay. Most of us are game occasionally for something flashy, sexy, dopey. Lifetime Network used to have an assembly line devoted to movies about trusting, open-hearted women terrorized by charming, hunky psychopaths; like any type of genre movie, they were enjoyable if you didn’t expect or need them to be other than what they were. Each new plot was a chewed-over regurgitation of the last, with every shift from romance to red flag, sex to psychosis blatantly telegraphed. Yet they were made cleanly and proficiently, without pretense of depth, but with the right degree of actorly exertion. They were televisual junk food of the kind abjured by only the most ascetic or snobbish of consumers, and Netflix has stepped into the breach: any time of year you can stream something on the order of Deadly Illusions, Dangerous Lies, or Secret Obsession.

So we punched up Fair Play – fresh title – and stared at it for twenty minutes in silence. The tension was inches thick. But that had nothing to do with the quality of the moviemaking, except inversely. It was generated by one badly written, badly acted scene after another – a badness not modest but aggressive, hyped-up, a desperate overinvestment in a delusional return. The first sequence establishes the dynamic between Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), partners in a two-year love affair which they’ve somehow kept secret from their colleagues at a stratospherically successful Manhattan brokerage. After several minutes’ worth of kissy-facing and cringey banter in a public bathroom, he hauls her onto the sink for some panting, convulsive oral sex – which ends in anticlimax when they discover smears of menstrual blood on their faces and clothes. “This movie had better get a lot less annoying very quickly,” I recall saying.

Fair Play is a Lifetime movie, I guess, for this moment in cultural time. Which is to say that it recycles several familiarities, not just one. Per Lifetime, it’s about a pathological affair, with a woman threatened by a man whose fear of failure meshes dangerously with his latent facility as a scheming sociopath. As others have pointed out, Fair Play is also evocative, probably intentionally, of eighties and nineties big-screen thrillers like Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, and Basic Instinct. It has that combination of soap and psycho, that slathering fixation on sex and the knife, that absence of subtlety and wit. Domont does Joe Eszterhas proud. The milieu is the upper reach of Manhattan’s professional class, mannequins who fancy themselves masters, drones in an open-plan office whose walls are made of glass so that a character can look up in time to notice another’s revealing expression a football field away. The basic insight into male insecurity and its nearness to psychopathy is more than valid; with better dialogue and better acting, this same plot could have (and probably has) formed the basis of an unnerving dual character study. As it is, Fair Play builds momentum once the plot pistons engage, but it never becomes fun, and never stops being laughable – a guilty pleasure without the pleasure, or even the guilt.

To the Lifetime template and Eszterhas design, Domont adds the contemporary element of hyper-profanity. You needn’t be at all censorious of your own or others’ language to find the cursing in Fair Play excessive. Introduced as a form of dumb love patter (“I fuckin’ love you so fuckin’ much”), with the tightening of the plot “fuck” becomes a mindless noise thrown willy-nilly into every third sentence. (Sometimes, it is the sentence: “Fuck! Fuck!! Fuuuuuuuckkkkk!!!”) A screenplay should treat profanity judiciously, as it would any other component of speech; but here the four-letter mantra, delivered incessantly by actors who have difficulty transmitting ordinary emotion convincingly, let alone blinding rage and frustration, signifies only a dearth of idea or resource. But it is, as I said, a contemporary tendency. A normalized ease with profanity is more and more today leaned on by people of small talent and limited imagination – from the published critics and social-media hot-takers who communicate their depth of feeling by typing in “I fucking love this movie” (or “I fucking hate this movie”), to the recent Prime Video miniseries based on Harlan Coben’s Shelter, full of youngish pod-person actors impersonating high schoolers whose level of conversational cursing suggested they’d all gone to Tony Montana Elementary.  

Anything else? As Luke, Ehrenreich is not bad. As Emily, Dynevor is. From her swearing to her smoking, she’s never less than conscious of putting on a tough show, of being an orchid imitating a weed. Her Emily lacks the look, sound, or presence of a woman who’s taken a punch or two from life – beginning with a mother who is mostly a hectoring voice on the phone, flinging “fucks” with the best of them. The secondary characters, and the actors who play them, are a lineup of goons and garbage people whose horribleness always serves some niggling plot necessity, but who together add up to a ripe stench filling the air behind the pretty leads. As the brokerage’s second in command, Rich Sommer (Mad Men and elsewhere) mainly pulls in his lips and raises his eyebrows to signal testy impatience with someone else’s lack of efficiency. The most visible of the secondaries is the troll-like president of the firm, played by the troll-like Englishman Eddie Marsan. I’ve seen Marsan only as the drunken, corrupt Yorkshire reporter of the Red Riding trilogy, where his phlegmy mumble, beady eyes, and oddly-shaped head fit right into the atmosphere of general depravity. Here he attempts one of those mishmash accents that are unknown outside the realm of mid-Atlantic acting: a voice without a country. On the plus side, his eyes are beadier than ever, and his head, which we see from every possible angle, just as oddly shaped.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is


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