MRC Film, 2023
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes
Despite being culturally aware of women’s skills and abilities as being no less sharp and infinite than theirs, many men still struggle to accept it when the person they love most earns more and advances more readily in their careers than they do. Fair Play features Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton, Younger) and Alden Ehrenreich (Oppenheimer, Brave New World) as Emily and Luke, a mid 30-something couple passionately embroiled in a romantic relationship and recently engaged. Both are career climbers working at the same investment firm where stakes are high around billion-dollar deals and careers can be suddenly enhanced or derailed.
This thrilling story of corporate gamesmanship and fierce lovemaking gives off an adrenaline rush that we normally experience with a good action movie. Fair Play, however, is an intense drama wrapped inside a compelling story. The issue is an old one, which is the degree to which men struggle to deal with the success of their female partners.
The inciting incident is Emily’s promotion to the coveted position of portfolio manager (PM) where bonus checks are multi-six-figure rather than just five. She is reticent about sharing the news with Luke and displays a sense of guilt about being promoted over him given his high hopes for getting the position. When she finds the words to tell him, Luke takes the news well, responding in his sedate and charming demeanor, “That’s amazing.”
Research doesn’t indicate that women feel guilty about being more successful than their male partners. Indeed, women’s promotions into executive ranks that hold decision-making power are rare, so such an advancement is received as a form of self-affirmation. Studies do show, however, that women’s guilt usually lies in them being less available to their children. But in Fair Play, Emily and Luke do not have children, which indicates that Emily’s sense of guilt is linked to Luke’s aspiration for the job and his disappointment for not getting it.
While he is initially supportive of Emily, Luke will not celebrate with her and over time becomes resentful of her. The depths of his resentment becomes clear when he angrily tells Emily, “You took my job. It was mine and you took it.” Men’s identity is strongly linked to work, and their gender role is tied to being the family’s provider. Luke’s behavior indicates that he is struggling with this conflict between his identity as a man and a reality that doesn’t align with it. What is surprising is the degree to which his behavior toward the love of his life devolves over the course of the 113 minute film – even to the point where he can’t get excited enough to engage in sexual relations with her.
Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan, Ray Donovan: The Movie) plays Campbell, the uncompromising and staunch leader of the firm whose focus is on making money (even if it means demeaning his employees to do so). As we see in this film, being fired from Campbell’s firm is mortifying, as the experience makes people cry like babies, destroy company property, and even bring grown men to their knees. It is also a place where the employees are accustomed to witnessing such meltdowns. This reality is demonstrated when a group casually chooses to increase the volume on an obligatory ethics video rather than stop and stare at the performance of yet another colleague being humiliatingly terminated.
Given all of this, it makes us think that while Luke self-destructs, he is perhaps not wrong in some of the stupor-ridden advice he imparts to Emily. One piece of his advice consists of making sure Campbell and others understand that she is not available to them 24/7. To ensure our careers do not overtake our identities, should we make it a point to draw boundaries between what we do and who we are? Are the extreme reactions to being fired from the firm indicative of the person’s inability to draw lines between their personal and professional lives?
Writer/director Chloe Domont meticulously presents a complete story beginning with the couple’s enthrallment of each other through its gradual and sad fracturing. Her deliberate casting of Emily and Luke as unmarried and with no children elucidates the source of stress in their relationship as strictly work-related. It helps us zero in on the question of whether Emily’s new responsibilities at work change how she relates to Luke and vice versa. This is critically important for us to see in order to consider the power of socialization in shaping who we are as individuals and how we make sense of our place in the world.
Fair Play is good and uniquely thrilling given its story and central themes. It would be interesting, though, to see such a story about same-sex partners. Do things get equally crazy in same-sex relationships or are they significantly different in some way?
Fair Play reminds me of another film about a firm, the law firm depicted in the 1993 movie, The Firm. Starring Tom Cruise as Mitch, The Firm is about a recent graduate from Harvard Law School who lands a role at a prestigious firm in Memphis and realizes its rampant lack of ethics. In threatening to expose them, he puts both his career and his life in peril with his no-nonsense and corrupt bosses, played by Gene Hackman and Hal Holbrook. Like in Fair Play, the stakes at Mitch’s law firm are high and the concept of fair play is non-existent. You get on board fast or get out now because the firm’s priority is to make money – and lots of it. Damn equity, ethics, individual careers, personal feelings, and even the people we love.