If you’ve seen one con artist caper, you haven’t seen Sharper. Oh. You’ve seen two? Ope.
Hitting select theatres and Apple TV+ on Friday, Sharper bursts with bespoke bluffs and dapper dupes punctuated by a charismatic cast, clever blocking from director Benjamin Caron (Andor) and glamorous cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) that indicates her as an acolyte of Michael Mann’s bokeh buffet. Even for those modestly suckered by such things, Sharper is certainly a sumptuous aesthetic thirst trap.
Don’t get too swindled, though, by those looks or Cliff Martinez’s synth-dripping score. This is not some sort of outrageous, salacious, Safdie-esque descent into the underworld. The only thing shinier than Sharper’s appearance is the blinding light that screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka shine well ahead of every twist they try. Using episodic structure and switchbacks to create, and then complicate, circumstances, Sharper wants to establish itself as a mannered matryoshka of manipulation. The deeper this nesting doll goes, the less enticing it gets, and its grift ultimately goes adrift on reefs of remorse that render Sharper a toothless tale of confidence-game comeuppance.
Plot details are pointless beyond pondering who’s playing the longest game among a bunch of billionaires and bottom-feeders portrayed by Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton and John Lithgow. Think of it as Six Degrees of Succession, with a portion of Pygmalion, in a New York so shadowy even the well-heeled are trying to save on the power bill.
Moore naturally cries within two minutes of her character’s introduction, but the film also slyly weaponizes this as a performative front. Stan maintains an appealing sorta-sweet, sorta-skeevy mystique. It’s always a pleasure to watch Lithgow whittle what seem like olive branches into jailyard shivs. (That toupée also looks ridiculous, but it’s supposed to look ridiculous.) Middleton certainly gets more of a breakout showcase here than in 2021’s middling The Tender Bar, but mounting plot complications eventually muddle her character’s convictions. Smith is the only vacancy amid the vibrancy, with his mopiness metastasizing into a major liability for likability.
There are feints at context throughout Sharper, namely in how lily-white folks push far more capable people of color into smaller corners across all aspects of capitalism. But it ultimately treats both that, and one character’s drug addiction, as convenient props en route to a painfully predictable conclusion. And for all the minor hay made about gun-control activist Moore brandishing a gun onscreen for the first time in however many years, well … there’s that second con-artist movie.
At the same time that it’s ultimately kind of disappointing, Sharper also boasts a couple of slippery needle-drops, wonderfully subtle foregrounding of a fake watch in the frame at key points and … look, with this, M3GAN and Pathaan, 2023 is so far the year of the energetic dance break about which no one should realistically complain. So what if this particular nesting doll came out of the factory busted? You certainly won’t mind looking at its alluring outer layer.