'Sharper' review: Stellar performances sustain enjoyable con thriller
Courtesy of Apple TV+/A24
Filled with plenty of misdirects to make your head spin, the new thriller “Sharper,” attempts to upend the con-artist genre with a unique, episodic framing device. Centered on a series of individuals who are either wealthy, privileged, poor, or all of the above, and layered in a manner to subliminally alter our headspace so we assume what comes next, only to get swindled in the next scene, “Sharper” is essentially a chess match of endurance. For the most part, and thanks to an exceptional ensemble, “Sharper” finds its mojo despite a sinking feeling the filmmakers may have played their hands a little too early.
Even if “Sharper” might be missing an X factor that takes it above the pantheon of films about elaborate cons, it still makes for an enjoyable romp where even the most pessimistic observers have to give the filmmakers some credit for pulling a fast one on them. The movie opens with a simple title card: “Tom,” who is played by Justice Smith and though “Sharper,” in the context of the film, is about living on the brink, in this sequence it’s about finding love. Tom owns a bookstore in New York City when local grad student Sandra (Briana Middleton) walks in looking for a novel by Zora Neale. Being the nerd he is, Tom wastes no time asking her out.
Do people still meet this serendipitously anymore? It’s an honest thought that rolled through my head on the initial viewing, but it’s hard to root against Tom and Sandra who’s relationship beautifully morphs from casual flirtation to head-over-heels. The only major issue that seems to arise is Sandra’s brother, whom she was passed around in foster care with, is always looking for money.
But it’s not just the Tom and Sandra show, sooner or later we get introduced to other characters too: Julianne Moore slaps a wry smile on her face playing the compassionate fiance to a mega billionaire (John Lithgow - projecting the appropriate amount of snark and wits) and Sebastian Stan bares it all as a slick con man who holds no feelings and goes above and beyond to rip off the ultra-elite. Of course, you’d have to imagine these characters, at some point, will intersect and co-exist and like a well greased narrative machine, director Benjamin Caron, along with screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, always seem one step ahead of the curve.
And their sleight-of-hand panache holds steady until the final con gives whiffs of an SNL sketch in how it cheats the viewer with hilarious (and complex) on the nose resolutions that aren’t plausible. Instead, events build and escalate until all that remains is a borderline ludicrous finale that isn’t as smart or ingenious as the movie thinks it is. Nonetheless, the ride to get there is pleasantly smooth and while it would have benefited from more concentration in the waning moments, “Sharper” still has enough edge to draw blood.
SHARPER debuts on Apple TV+ Friday February 17th.