“I don’t watch movies—they’re a waste of time,” says Max (Sebastian Stan) in Sharper. While that’s obviously not always the case, it’s certainly true about this fraudster thriller, which clumsily pivots around unbelievable twists and predictable bombshells. Saddling Julianne Moore and John Lithgow with thanklessly underwritten and cartoonish roles, it’s a film in which the audience is perpetually two steps ahead of the con.
Sharper was written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, whose screenplay was included on the 2020 Black List (the annual compendium of the best unproduced scripts). Perhaps it read better on the page, since on the screen, it’s an egregiously transparent endeavor modeled after the finest swindle-y works of David Mamet (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner), but boasting none of those predecessors’ cleverness, surprise or precision—this despite the fact that director Benjamin Caron opens his story with close-ups of a watch being carefully assembled.
Premiering in theaters on Feb. 10 before arriving on Apple TV+ on Feb. 17, it’s a wannabe-tricky dud that stumbles out of the gate and then proceeds to telegraph its every subsequent move.
In downtown New York City, bookshop owner Tom (Justice Smith) finds customer Sandra (Briana Middleton) fetching, and asks her out. When she finally accepts—this after an initial rejection—a budding romance is born. For Tom, this is downright rejuvenating, given that his recent failure as a novelist led to a deep depression and Sandra appears to be his kindred spirit.
Over dinners, walks in Central Park, and nights in bed together, Tom discovers that they share an amazing number of similarities, from a fluency in Italian and a fondness for Fellini to dead parents and a love of books (in particular, Jane Eyre). So perfect are they for each other that, when Sandra reveals that she has a deadbeat brother who’s in debt to scary men who are threatening violence if they don’t get $350,000 in a matter of days, Tom immediately agrees to give her the cash.
Tom has this enormous bounty thanks to his hedge fund manager father, and he hands it over without reservation—the first sign that he’s a monumental dope, or at least that Sharper expects us to believe that anyone could possibly be this gullible and reckless after only a few weeks of dating. Caron’s film is split into sections, each one focusing on a different individual, and once Sandra absconds with the money, it segues from Tom to her.
A down-on-her-luck junkie and petty crook, Sandra benefits from a stroke of good (i.e., absurdly convenient) luck when, while visiting her parole officer at a rundown bar, she’s saved from impending incarceration by Max, who demonstrates to her that he’s a master scammer. Thus, Sandra becomes Max’s protégé, and a competent one at that, proving her mettle during a test at a hotel that resembles something straight out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (replete with a Tangerine Dream-esque score).
Sandra and Max are an ideal duo, yet Sharper soon makes clear that she’s merely one component of a larger ruse that Max is executing with Madeline (Julianne Moore), who’s currently posing as the doting girlfriend of well-connected billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow).
As part of their plan, Madeline convinces Richard that Max is her lousy, no-good adult son so that the tycoon will feel compelled to pay Max off to get lost. This is the first, if not the sole, way in which Madeline and Max intend to hit it big, and like every other revelation dispensed by Gatewood and Tanaka’s tale, the nature of their crime is a rather easy one to deduce, thereby draining the action of any legitimate suspense.
Worse than the tepidness of Sharper, however, is its ridiculousness. At multiple points along its journey, the film has characters say, do, and believe things that defy plausibility, which renders its reversals and double-crosses into eye-rolling nonsense. Demanding excessive suspension of disbelief, its plot hinges on a variety of preposterous developments that can’t stand up to immediate in-the-moment scrutiny, much less post-movie analysis. The result is that nothing about it feels the least bit real, just as its characters are so innately untrustworthy that their every maneuver reeks of calculated manipulation.
Director Caron (who’s previously helmed installments of The Crown and Andor) loves long, dark, narrow hallways and characters in silhouette, as well as cityscapes illuminated by millions of twinkling lights. No amount of superficial sizzle, though, can energize what quickly devolves into a game of cinematic three-card monte that’s always tipping its hand.
Eventually, an enormous fortune winds up at stake, with Madeline, Max, Tom, and Sandra all vying to get their piece of the pie, but they’re all cardboard cut-out characters playing two-dimensional chess. Because there’s no depth to Sharper’s scenario or relationships, the entire affair comes across as a pantomime of superior ploys gone by.
Given little to work with, Moore and Stan vacillate between affected cheeriness and genuine steely ruthlessness, striking a collection of serviceable poses in designer outfits (and in luxury apartments and restaurants) while failing to suggest a complex inner life that might make Madeline and Max (or their subterfuge) interesting.
Regardless of the film pretending that Tom and Sandra are a more complicated pair, Middleton and Smith fare no better. All four are as good as the material will allow, which isn’t very; there’s a phoniness to every setting, betrayal, and lovey-dovey interaction. Moreover, considering that they’re all established as potentially duplicitous, and that nothing taking place is exactly as it seems, Sharper flails in trying to pull the wool over one’s eyes during its back half.
Try as Caron might to coat everything in a veneer of shadowy menace, Sharper feels writerly through and through, its right turns schematic and its denouement foreseeable from a mile away. Though produced by the prestige-friendly A24, it’s a second-rate genre venture that’s lacking the very cunning its protagonists purportedly possess, as well as a measure of sumptuous, sinister style that might make up for that deficiency.
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