‘Sharper’ Review: An Uneven Con-Artist Thriller with Some Flashes of Brilliance Featuring Briana Middleton’s Breakthrough Performance

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‘Sharper’, which will be making its streaming debut on Apple TV+ this Friday, is a psychological thriller about con artists scamming wealthy people. Told in chapters, we begin with a meet-cute scenario, where we are first introduced to Tom (Justice Smith) and Sandra (Briana Middleton). Tom runs a bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side, and he immediately falls in love with Sandra, who is a graduate student looking for a particular book. A copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ to be exact. He tries to ask her out, only to be casually rejected, but after a few hesitations, Sandra finally agrees to go out with him on a date.

The first 20 minutes are both sweet and heartwarming as we see Tom and Sandra’s romance blossom from awkward strangers to intimate lovers bonding in their beautiful relationship. Justice Smith and Briana Middleton share wonderful chemistry together, and for a while, the first act feels like I’m watching a romantic drama. But of course, being a movie about con artists, nothing and nobody is what they seem. What happens next is a sudden turn of events as Sandra tells Tom about her brother owing some bad people a huge debt totaling at $350,000. She doesn’t have that kind of money, but Tom is willing to help her.

Elaborating the movie’s premise further would enter spoiler territory. But what I can say here is ‘Sharper’ subsequently introduces more characters, including a con man named Max (Sebastian Stan) and his well-off mom, Madeleine (Julianne Moore), who has a relationship with a wealthy billionaire played by John Lithgow as Richard Hobbes.

‘Sharper’ marks Benjamin Caron’s feature-length directorial debut, whose previous credits include helming a few TV episodes for ‘Skins,’ ‘Sherlock,’ ‘The Crown,’ and more recently, ‘Andor.’ Working on a screenplay written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, the film gets off to a deliberate and well-crafted start. I like how the con slowly but surely plays out using a classic combination of trust, deceit, and the good old charm. Caron’s slick direction certainly has its moments, including the first act and the subsequent introduction of Max grooming a protégé.

Then, there’s the elaborate third act filled with twists, turns, and misdirection as we see the characters trying to outsmart each other. Sure, it was convoluted, with questionable flashbacks of all the hows and whys the events actually unfold in the first place. But at the same time, it’s hard to deny the crafty sense of fun where ‘Sharper’ excels the most.

‘Sharper’ also benefits from a mostly good cast. Other than Justice Smith and Briana Middleton, we have Sebastian Stan in his sneakily charismatic turn as Max. At the same time, Julianne Moore, who shows up later in the movie, delivers a coolly manipulative performance as Madeleine. Middleton deserves an extra shoutout here, a relative newcomer with that magnetic charm the moment she appears onscreen. In fact, she is the most interesting character who gets to showcase her varied emotions throughout the movie. It was undoubtedly a breakthrough performance and she has the huge potential to go far one day. The only exception in the cast is the otherwise reliable screen veteran John Lithgow, who is sadly underutilized as the hedge fund billionaire Richard Hobbes.

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From the technical point of view, the movie oozes a mix of warm and glamorous visual sheen that characterizes the posh scenery with the help of Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s elegant cinematography. Clint Mansell, who regularly collaborated with Darren Aronofsky, pulls off a stylish and atmospheric score that complements well with the stealthy and ambiguous tone of the movie.

Unfortunately, between the sly and deceptive storytelling, the movie somehow fumbles more than often with an erratic pace that goes on too long to make a point. This is especially true during the long stretch revolving around Madeleine’s estranged mother-and-son relationship with Max and the less-than-enthusiastic build-up related to scamming the wealthy Richard Hobbes.

The cast may deliver their respective committed performances, but the movie feels emotionally hollow. It’s hard to care who will make it alive or evade capture at the movie’s end. ‘Sharper’ simply spends too much time twisting and turning its labyrinthine plot to the point that the characters here are depicted more like moving pieces of a chessboard puzzle. I understand that con artists are generally narcissists and manipulators who don’t easily get emotionally attached or involved with someone. And yet, the lack of emotional engagement, with the exception of Tom and Sandra’s brief side of the story at the beginning of the movie, resulted in a movie that ends up becoming too cold and detached for its own good.

Personally, I have been looking forward to ‘Sharper’ not only for the familiar faces but also for the subject matter of con artists that always piqued my interest. I was hoping the movie would join the ranks of some of the best con-artist movies like “The Grifters” and the 2001 version of ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ Too bad, despite some of the commendable moments and acting performances, ‘Sharper’ ends up more like a missed opportunity that could have been better.

SCORE: 5/10

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