The opening credits of Benjamin Caron’s handsomely mounted — and often terribly predictable — con artist drama “Sharper” tell us all we need to know about what’s coming. They’re slick, a little mean, and definitely kind of silly. In fact, “credits” is too generous a term, because Caron opens his feature film debut with a single word: “Sharper.” Flash to its textbook definition, wonderfully simple in its information: “one who lives by their wits.”
Isn’t that everybody? Not like this, not like these people. God, you’d hope to not be like these people.
Based on Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s Blacklist script, “Shaper” slices and dices a classic con story and refashions it as its own kind of whodunit, one where everyone is some degree of guilty or culpable or just damn deserving of being tricked, and delights in piling on the just plain mean twists for the hell of it. Told backwards (until it’s not) and divided into chapters named for particular characters (until it’s really just about all of them), “Sharper” isn’t nearly as smart as it would like to believe it is, but for nearly two hours, it will keep audiences on their toes.
Unfortunately, the less that audience knows about “Sharper” going in, the better. Even billing the film as a con artist drama with a stacked cast — Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, John Lithgow, and a breakout Briana Middleton — will inspire viewers to keep their hackles up throughout, constantly wondering just who is conning who (and how and why, etc.). Let that go, if you can.
Caron attempts just that with the film’s first chapter (“TOM”), which introduces us to a mild-mannered book store manager (Smith) whose life is upended by the arrival of a pretty PhD student (Middleton) with a taste for the very books he loves the most (“Jane Eyre,” one of many off-kilter details that don’t quite fit these characters). Soon, Caron — an experienced television director, from “Andor” to “The Crown” and “Sherlock” — is lavishing on a darling NYC-set romance, as Tom and Sandra grow closer through their love of books and shared childhood traumas.
Apple Original Films, A24
All of that is interrupted when Sandra’s unseen brother — her only living relative! — starts sniffing around for money to bail him out of a shady situation. And wouldn’t you know it, mild-mannered book store manager Tom just so happens to have a fat trust fund, one he’s eager to open up to help his lady love. Who’s conning who? Well, you can guess, but “Sharper” has a few more tricks up its sleeve, zipping back in time to clarify how Sandra got involved with this nefarious scheme, care of career criminals Max (Stan) and Madeline (Moore).
The ways in which these four — plus Lithgow as a Manhattan billionaire that Madeline has set her sights on — intersect is rarely surprising, but the ways in which Gatewood and Tanaka choose to toss them together can be compelling. Sandra and Max randomly meet at a bar, where he alleges he “sees” something in her manner that makes him think she might make a good partner, while we never get the full backstory on Max and Madeline. “Sharper” is all about the conflict between what we see and what we don’t see, what we can’t possibly know, and the various levels of information the script doles out bolsters that theme.
If only the rest of it was so, well, sharp. As “Sharper” pulls back through time to unbraid its many tangled connections, eagle-eyed viewers will likely spot the tells from a mile away. And the moments that don’t necessarily feel earned? They’re papered over with Steven Soderbergh-style flashbacks, flash-sideways, winks to entire events that we couldn’t possibly have known about until they were laid out before us, the entire scam, just a tick-tock to-do list of bad people behaving very badly indeed.
But, like all good scams, “Sharper” at least boasts the trappings of a much finer affair (as Max tells Sandra, he’s going to teach her how to “give the impression” of being someone else), and Caron’s film often gives the impression of being a more slick outing, but sometimes, that appearance is good enough. Stellar acting from each star — especially Middleton, who pulls off a real high-wire act in the film’s first two, very different chapters — raise the bar on the entire film, and on-location filming in New York City adds real texture to a picture that’s literally all about appearances.
You might know where this is all going, but damn if you won’t enjoy the wild ride there.
An Apple Original Films and A24 release, “Sharper” will hit select theaters on Friday, February 10, and will start streaming on AppleTV+ on Friday, February 17.
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