All the twists and carefully calculated double crosses in the world can’t save the con artist picture Sharper from being anything more than blandly passible. The kind of film that only works if you have lowered expectations or haven’t seen a movie about long cons before in your life, Sharper expends a lot of storytelling ingenuity, slickness, and decent performances on a whole that’s lesser than the sum of its intricately assembled parts. The film opens with close-ups of the inner workings of a Swiss wristwatch, and it offers up a great metaphor for what’s to follow: it’s cool to look at for a few moments, but once you’re tipped off as to how it works, things get monotonous rather quickly.
It all starts with a meet-cute relationship between a kindly New York City bookstore owner named Tom (Justice Smith) and a grad student named Sandra (Briana Middleton), and in typical elaborate con movie fashion, things get impossible to talk about beyond that point. Divided up into time shifting chapters that speak to the nature of each of the main characters, Sharper is one of those movies that doles out a little bit of information at a time, building towards a grand reveal. I’m not going to try and spoil anything here, but most viewers will start piecing things together early on; the second that one of the characters starts acting like they have some dark secret to hide.
The script from Alessandro Tanaka and Brian Gatewood is structurally sound and gives the actors plenty of backstory to work with, but being so obvious that the viewer is always one or two steps ahead of the characters is a bad look for any work that hinges on a twist every five to ten minutes. None of the twists hit like a shock, instead inspiring and eliciting more of a nod or shrug to say that it all makes perfect sense. Sharper isn’t an outlandish, over-the-top picture about swindling unknowing marks, but there’s also a void of humour and playfulness to be found. It’s all technically sound from a writing perspective, but Sharper isn’t taking any big swings. Each time a new character is introduced, it’s clear that they aren’t to be taken at their word almost immediately, which makes the generation of suspense almost impossible.
The direction from prestige television veteran Benjamin Caron is acceptable for the script’s tone. Sharper isn’t a movie that wants to glamourize or make con artistry look fun. It wants to show conning as mournful, sad, and desperate. As such, a lot of Sharper comes across as gorgeous looking, but sterile as a clinical study being conducted in a boardroom. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen makes nice use of light and glass amid settings that look straight out of any number of movies about wealthy New Yorkers. Everything is meant to look and sound as subdued as possible – except for Clint Mansell’s propulsive score, which belongs in a much more exciting movie – but the disaffected tone and direction still lays things on rather thick. It wants the viewer to be interested, but only up to a certain point where the might stop asking logical questions. One could call it a slow burn if they wanted to, but that would suggest a much more unpredictable movie.
Sharper features a stacked cast of capable performers inhabiting characters who seem less important than the stifling, stuff ambiance around them. Smith gets the most interesting arc of the bunch, but his contributions are confined mostly to the first and final acts. Sebastian Stan once again proves his aptitude for playing untrustworthy men, here, and Julianne Moore nicely showcases her ability to credibly switch up a character’s emotional state at the drop of a hat. But the biggest standout here is Middleton, who makes a considerable impression from start to finish as the character that turns out to be the biggest wild card.
They do what they can, but in a film where there’s only one person who clearly seems on the level and a bunch of others that are liars, none of the performances are in service of anything beyond what the story entails, and it’s a struggle to invest in learning who’ll actually come out on top in the end. Even the nastier aspects of the story are given the white glove treatment, meaning the actors are handcuffed to the material and direction. There are plenty of plot points and character tics in Sharper, but not a lot of actual depth or meaning.
But the dividing line between Sharper being a merely okay movie and a merely not-okay movie comes down to that big reveal, when Caron and company suddenly decide to get emotional. It never takes because there has been precious little genuine emotion up to that point, making the film’s biggest scene tonally inconsistent with everything that came before it. Also, as stated before, it’s pretty easy to see where this is all heading well before Sharper gets there. Sharper is slick without being flashy, which would be a compliment if there was anything else here to fill the emotional void.
Sharper is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, February 17, 2023. It screens for one performance only at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and VIFF Centre in Vancouver on Wednesday, February 15.
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