No matter how many “good little movies” play at Sundance, going forward this festival simply can’t be what it has been if it doesn’t feature movies that can break out of the independent-film-world bubble. And look, it’s not as if a movie has to be one or the other! “Fair Play” is a perfect example. It’s a finance drama, set inside a cutthroat New York hedge fund, and it’s also a romantic thriller that takes a shrewd and probing look at sexual politics in the post-#MeToo world. To put it in vulgar terms: Could it be a commercial movie? You bet. It’s one of the rare Sundance films that could totally break through in the real world — and in an age when movies like “Tár” and “The Fabelmans” have struggled, that makes it a special commodity. But the key to the film’s potential success isn’t just that it’s made in a commercial genre. It’s that “Fair Play,” while full of sex, money, corporate backstabbing, and a lot of other things that are fun to watch, really is a good little movie.
It’s written and directed by Chloe Domont, a director of series television (“Billions,” “Ballers,” “Clarice”) whose first feature this is, and Domont has fashioned one of the rare films set in the financial demimonde that nails everything about it — the numbers jargon, the risk/reward systems, the bro camaraderie and treachery — in a way that’s authentic enough to let us believe we’re seeing this world as it truly is, and not some oversimplified Hollywood version of it. “Wall Street,” in the ’80s, was a finance drama that knew how to talk the talk. More recently, those films have included “Boiler Room” (2000) and “Margin Call” (2011).
“Fair Play” joins their accomplished company, and part of what’s entertaining about it is that the characters, analyzing which assets to invest in or drop, speak in a way that’s so fast and dense with inside information that the film isn’t asking us to keep up with every word. It’s asking us to take in the underlying logic of the transactions: how each decision to buy or sell is based on knowledge about the companies that the analysts have plugged into with an eerily awesome facility. It’s as if they’re placing bets not on horses but on skittery 3D holograms whose profiles keep changing.
At the center of the story are Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), who we meet at a wedding, where they’re drunk and horny enough to sneak into the bathroom for a quickie. In the thick of the action, Luke drops a small metal object on the floor; it’s the engagement ring he’s been planning to offer to Emily. He does, she accepts, and they head back to their rumpled but roomy apartment near Chinatown. The next morning, they walk out together on the way to work, then part ways and head in opposite directions. But in the next scene, they’re riding up in the elevator together, doing fake Monday morning chit-chat, as they arrive at the offices of One Crest Capital.
Both work there as analysts, but they’ve kept their romantic liaison a secret. As we learn, it’s not because they’re so private; it’s because the relationship violates company policy. The film uses this post-#MeToo, all-too-real-world situation to produce scenes that tap into a new flavor of office drama, as the two have to act studiously nonchalant with each other. But after the hedge fund’s “PM” (portfolio manager) gets fired and smashes up his office with a golf club, his position is suddenly open, and Emily, leaning over Luke’s multi-colored computer screen, can’t resist telling him about the rumor she’s heard: that the position is going to go to him. Instead, Emily gets a call during the wee hours, summoning her downtown to have a drink with Campbell (Eddie Marsan), the boss and owner of the company. He lets Emily know that it’s her, in fact, who’s going to be the new PM.
As soon as she breaks the news to Luke, he reacts in a manner that’s textbook perfect in its warmly congratulatory and supportive way. When he says, “I’m so fucking proud of you,” it’s with a crinkled grin of sincerity. But it’s a sign of what a subtle movie “Fair Play” is that we don’t need to see Luke’s underlying disappointment; we can read it in Alden Ehrenreich’s vibe. He’s an actor I confess I’ve been down on ever since “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” because I thought he was so dismally inadequate as the young Han Solo. But now I see why. There’s something officious about Alden Ehrenreich. He’s not a bruiser; he’s a cerebral mover and shaker. And that makes him perfect to play a would-be finance hotshot who has learned to keep his thoughts under wraps, and now has to do it even in his love relationship.
Luke is assigned to be Emily’s analyst, which means he works directly under her; he makes recommendations about which liquid assets to trade, and she decides. We can tell how this is going to go as soon as he delays answering one of her email requests (he only waits about 30 seconds, but the dragginess speaks volumes). And when he makes an urgent plea for a buy, and it turns out that his information was wrong and the trade tanks, the situation blows up. The boss’s reaction, hearing that the fund has lost millions, is not pretty. In fact, it’s shocking. He calls Emily a “dumb fucking bitch” to her face. But we’re meant to understand that the abusive language, even in this era, is there to signify the cult of hedge-fund ruthlessness — a cult that Emily, like everyone there, wants to be part of, so she shuts up about it. And when she makes a trade, based on another Luke hunch, that turns into a bonanza, all is forgiven. The next morning, she strolls in, triumphant, and Campbell slips her a commission: a check for $575,000.
In the One Crest office, you’re either a winner or a loser. And what we learn, along with Emily, is that just about everyone there has been designated a loser. After two years or so, unless you’ve vaulted to the next level, you’re expected to tuck your tail between your legs and leave. Emily has escaped this fate. But Luke? Not so much.
He’s a loser at the company simply because he’s not one of the (few) winners, and the worm of doubt that begins to eat away at him rears its head when he asks Emily, with seeming innocence, whether their boss, during that late-night drink, tried to put the moves on her. In a lesser movie (e.g., if “Fair Play” had been made by the Adrian Lyne of the ’90s), Luke’s paranoia about infidelity would have expanded in him and taken over. But here the point is much slyer. He’s not really concerned about infidelity. He’s using the prospect to undercut Emily’s competence — to say, in essence, “The boss may have designs on you. Which is the real reason you got this.”
Emily, in Luke’s eyes, can’t win. She goes out with the top-level managers for drinks, even tagging along with them to a lap-dance club, where she plays along with their frat-house skeeviness, because she knows that’s what she has to do; she’s got to be in the boys’ club to be a winner. But when Luke calls her out for it, tweaking her with the grim condemnation, “You don’t look like one of the boys,” it’s a great line that crystalizes male #MeToo paranoia. He’s saying, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The dialogue between these two slowly escalates into a blizzard of power gamesmanship. It’s like the great restaurant argument early on in “Triangle of Sadness” that I so wish Ruben Östland could have sustained.
A hedge-fund office is a unique place, light years away from most of us, but Chloe Domont uses the office here to channel something about the spirit of our time. There’s plenty of obscene jousting, and the finance patter makes the characters sound like computers on Adderall, yet there’s no real bonhomie, no joy outside the momentary ping of the next deal. Eddie Marsan’s luscious performance as Campbell incarnates the new era. He’s pitiless and all-knowing, with a stare that could slice through a glacier. The men in the office — and yes, it’s just about all men — recognize that they’ve created a culture of sociopaths, and they’re cool with that. To pretend otherwise is not to win. Your only god is the market.
Is Luke jealous of Emily? Most definitely. But “Fair Play” is a good movie because his jealousy expresses something larger — the way that the future-is-female energy of her promotion skewers his place in the universe. And once he reveals his true colors, so, to our shock, does Emily. She lets out what she was holding in, and Phoebe Dynevor’s performance, which has been at once ardent and contained, erupts in a way we weren’t expecting. Emily has earned her place among the gladiators, which Luke has said he supported. But the real question she’s asking is: How do you like me now?