Sharper (2023) Review!!

Synopsis – A con artist takes on Manhattan’s billionaires.

My Take – Con artist films have been a time-honored tradition, going back to the earliest days of cinema. There has always been a simple joy to be found in their unpredictable beats, as an audience we are constantly unsure which character is lying and which one is speaking the truth. And just when you think you have understood what is going on, the film expertly pulls the rug from beneath your feet. If well-written and carefully played, they can be the most thrilling sub-genre to watch.

Sadly, that has not been the case for some time now, plus they have become so abundant that an avid fan has become skeptic to jump into a new one, even when a studio like A24 is attached to it.

Thankfully, that is not the case with this latest Apple original film, a classic grifter thriller that acts as a stylish throwback to writer David Mamet‘s works and manages to be a consistently entertaining, old-fashioned ride throughout. Backed by gorgeous visuals, a stellar cast and an engaging story line, the psychological thriller is cleverly constructed and delivers a lot of surprises along the way.

Marking the feature directorial debut of television veteran Benjamin Caron, and written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, the 116-minute film undoubtedly relies on twists and turns at every corner, with some feeling distinctively more predictable than others. Yet, some moments will undoubtedly leave the audience dumbstruck by the folding on the screen.

Sure, it doesn’t exactly rewrite the playbook on what a classic about con artists can be, and at time it does feel like director Caron has bitten off a little more than he can chew, but that doesn’t stop the film from impressing with good wit and occasional cutting-edge screenplay and satisfy as sleek, sexy, sophisticated fun entertainer. In simpler terms, just don’t underestimate the writing, it constantly undermines your expectations and consistently wears its astuteness.

The story follows Tom (Justice Smith), the owner of a used bookshop in New York City. It is there where he meets Sandra (Briana Middleton), a Ph.D. candidate at NYU who is dazzled when Tom shows her a first edition of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. After which the two timid bookworms become a thing almost instantly.

However, their honeymoon phase is cut short when reality comes knocking at the door in the form of Sandra’s brother, Jason. Who has contacted Sandra because he needs her help to pay off a gambling debt of $350,000 to the mob or else. Unsure, of how she is going to help him, Tom ends up offering the money.

Money which he can just withdraw from the account of his rich father who runs a hedge fund. But, as soon as he hands over the bag of cash to her, Sandra goes missing, thereby making it seem that she has either run away with the cash or been killed by the debt collectors. As the film goes back in time, we learn about the other players, i.e., Max (Sebastian Stan), Madeline (Julianne Moore), and Richard (John Lithgow) and we’re off into a head-spinning series of double-crosses.

Beginning with a dreamy meet-cute straight out of a romantic comedy, it is possible that at around the 40-minute mark of the film, you’ll begin to question your decision about watching this film because everything that is unfolding is way too predictable. But that’s the result of the trick that writers Gatewood and Tanaka are trying to pull off. The film soon proves to be anything but, deceiving audiences in a genre-switcheroo with the same twist as the film’s characters.

By spending a major chunk of the first act in the most cliché way possible, they lull you into this false sense of confidence that you know exactly how the plot is going to unfold. Soon enough, the film morphs into a full-fledged con-artist thriller, using title cards to interweave each leading character with the next.

Structurally, it’s a good move for the film. It definitely adds a layer of intrigue to unravel this web of lies character by character. And thematically it works as well. Conning isn’t a one-and-done mission, it’s a lifestyle. An endless cycle of one up man-ship and striving for more.

Director Benjamin Caron, who’s done astute TV work on ‘Andor’ and ‘The Crown,’ mines every shocking turn in the script and his unapologetic employment of constant deception at every turn is impressive. Especially the one enduring idea that emotional attachment is the biggest, and oldest, con game around. The film plays it cool, almost to a fault, stylish and emotionally detached, but not too detached, allowing enough earnestness into a story about criminals without spoiling its amoral sauciness.

Yes, one can’t help but wish that each segment was fleshed out a little more and feel much less rushed. A result of which Lithgow’s billionaire Richard is not given nearly enough screen time, which leaves us questioning his true nature, subsequently posing a slight issue when his character becomes central to the plot.

Yet regardless, the film still manages to be an enjoyable feature that satirizes wealthy people’s obsession with money. A swanky, high-class endeavor that slowly shatters the illusion of security for both the characters and the audience. And whenever the script threatens to spill over the edge of improbability, the actors hold you in a tight grip.

Julianne Moore sells every bit being the sinister and dramatic money-lover. Her wonderfully wicked performance is right on the money. Here’s a born scammer whose treachery is so sweetly done you barely notice when she goes in for the kill. Sebastian Stan once again proves his versatility, making Max a figure of mirth and menace in it less for greed than the thrill of the dangerous game.

Justice Smith appear to revel in his role and his fully committed, and shares excellent chemistry with Briana Middleton, who is simply sensational as Sandra, taking us on a roller coaster ride of behavior and motivation that centers the action in ways you won’t see coming. John Lithgow ends up drawing the shortest stick, and yet manages to dominate his scenes. Darren Goldstein too shines in a supporting role. On the whole, ‘Sharper’ is a consistently entertaining thriller that is slick, tight and twisty throughout.

Directed – 

Starring – Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, John Lithgow

Rated – R

Run Time – 116 minutes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.