In the course of that rich history of films about con artists, the appeal has almost always been to watch largely amoral professionals execute their perfect plans in order to strip some rich jerk of their money. What Sharper presupposes is… maybe it isn’t? The result is a mostly diverting couple of hours, but one unfortunately marred by the fact that it’s all so bizarrely square. The film is broken into chapters, each of which, sort of, focus on an individual character. First, we have Tom (Justice Smith), who’s working at a bookstore when he’s taken with one of his customers, Sandra (Briana Middleton). After a requisite meet-cute and a nice date (plus an entire opening sequence — probably accidentally, but still — that plays almost as a carbon copy of Clarence and Alabama meeting in True Romance), there’s a lovely montage showing their burgeoning romance. And, as it turns out, Tom also comes from money — a lot of it.
We then bounce back in time to see Sandra’s introduction to Max (Sebastian Stan). He lifts her up out of addiction and parole officer problems, training her to become an expert confidence trickster. At this point, we’re also introduced to Madeline (Julianne Moore), who might be Max’s lover but is instead pretending to be his mother. You see, she’s dating Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), a big wheel at some hedge fund who also happens to be Tom’s father. You see where this is all headed: The whole thing is perfectly cromulent. The time-jumping narrative helps Sharper to maintain a modicum of suspense throughout, and all the actors are game in their respective roles. Stan and Moore, in particular, have some actual chemistry; it’s just a shame that they’re sidelined for large chunks of the story. Lithgow also oozes just the right amount of ick, but he also exits the narrative too early and leaves behind Middleton and Smith, a pair who simply aren’t interesting enough on their own either as a precious dupe or an audience-surrogate tour guide to the world of the long con.
There’s competently executed tension here, but director Benjamin Caron ultimately doesn’t have a ton up his sleeve. A graduate from years of television, there are the usual prestige-TV stylistic tricks — shallow focus, flourishy monochrome scenes, etc. — but it’s rarely surprising. And at his worst, on a couple of occasions Caron even gets right in the way of his actors, such as in a brief scene of Moore and Stan having a celebratory dance in an empty bar that would have been far more effective if it wasn’t ill-advisedly broken up by coverage. Even setting all that frustrating technical craft aside, though, Sharper fails not because it’s generic, but rather because its attempt at a smidgen of novelty is so damn boring in execution. Who comes to a caper movie for a story of someone gaining a conscience and feeling sorry about conning people? The approach is anathemic to the subgenre and sets expectations it has no intention of meeting, not to mention it’s simply no fun at all.
You can currently watch Benjamin Caron’s Sharper in theaters or streaming on Apple TV+ beginning on February 17.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 6.