‘Sharper’ Review: Remember when the whodunit was mean?
Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith and a breakout Briana Middleton star in a nicely assembled – and often predictable – con-man drama.
The opening credits of Benjamin Caron’s beautifully edited – and often terribly predictable – con-drama Sharper tell us everything we need to know about what’s to come. They’re slick, a little mean, and definitely kind of goofy. In fact, “credits” is too generous a term, as Caron opens his feature film debut with a single word: “Sharper.” Flash on his textbook definition, which is wonderfully simple in its information: “One who lives by his wits.”
Isn’t that all? Not like this, not like these people. Godyou would hope not to be like these people.
Based on the Blacklist screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, Shaper slices a classic con tale and re-wraps it as its own brand of crime thriller, one in which everyone bears some measure of guilt or blame, or just damn well deserves it , being tricked, and enjoying the heck of piling on the downright mean twists. Told backwards (until it isn’t) and divided into chapters named after specific characters (until really almost all of them are), “Sharper” isn’t nearly as smart as it would like to believe, but it is for almost two hours , it will keep the audience on their toes.
Unfortunately, the less audiences know about Sharper, the better. Even when the film is billed as a con-man drama with a stacked cast — Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, John Lithgow, and a breakout Briana Middleton — viewers are inspired to keep the hairs on the back of their necks up the entire time received and constantly wondering who is cheating on whom (and how and why, etc.). Don’t if you can.
Caron attempts to do just that with the film’s first chapter (“TOM”), which introduces us to a mild-mannered bookstore manager (Smith) whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of a pretty graduate student (Middleton) with a penchant for the extreme books, he loves the most (“Jane Eyre”, one of many unconventional touches that don’t quite fit these characters). Soon, Caron – a veteran television director from “Andor” to “The Crown” and “Sherlock” – indulges in a sweet New York romance, while Tom and Sandra grow closer through their love of books and shared childhood trauma.
Apple Original Films, A24
All of this is interrupted when Sandra’s invisible brother – her only living relative! – starts snooping for money to save him from a shady situation. And wouldn’t you know, mild-mannered bookstore manager Tom happens to have a fat trust fund he’s dying to open to help his mistress. Who is cheating on whom? Well, as you can guess, Sharper has a few more tricks up his sleeve and jumps back in time to clarify how Sandra became involved in this nefarious plot involving career criminals Max (Stan) and Madeline (Moore) cares.
The way these four — plus Lithgow as the Manhattan billionaire Madeline has her sights on — overlap is rarely surprising, but the way Gatewood and Tanaka lump them together can be compelling. Sandra and Max happen to meet at a bar, where he claims he “sees” something in her behavior that leads him to believe she might make a good partner, while we never learn the full backstory of 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 layers of information the script doles out reinforces that theme.
If only the rest were so, well, hot. As “Sharper” pulls back through time to unravel its many tangled connections, eagle-eyed viewers will likely spot the tells from a mile away. And the moments that don’t necessarily feel deserved? They’re loaded with Steven Soderbergh-style flashbacks, blink sidewayswinks at entire events we couldn’t possibly have known about until they were laid out in front of us, the entire scam, just a tick tock to do list of bad people who are really, really misbehaving.
But, like all good cons, “Sharper” at least boasts the trappings of a much finer affair (as Max says Sandra will teach her how to “appear” to be someone else), and Caron’s film gives that often gives the impression of being a more sophisticated outing, but sometimes that appearance is good enough. The outstanding acting from each star – particularly Middleton, who walks a real tightrope in the film’s first two very different chapters – raises the bar for the film as a whole, and the shooting on location in New York City adds real texture to a picture, which is literally all about appearances.
You may know where this is all going, but damn if you’re not going to enjoy the wild ride there.
“Sharper,” an Apple Original Films and A24 release, hits select theaters on Friday, February 10 and streams on AppleTV+ on Friday, February 17.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/02/sharper-review-julianne-moore-sebastian-stan-1234806926/ ‘Sharper’ Review: Remember when the whodunit was mean?