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Review: A Con Artist Film You’ll Wish Was ‘Sharper’
TL:DR A new well-cast con artist thriller borrows from the best, but can’t land its own scam.
Sharper presents a unique challenge for reviewers. With so much of the film built on repeated reveals, even letting one slip ruins its best assets. To keep it simple, Tom (Justice Smith, once again cast as the patsy) meets cute with Sandra (Briana Middleton) when she stumbles into the used bookstore where he works. They have immediate chemistry, but she politely refuses his advances. By the end of the day, though, she’s back, confessing she got scared and self-sabotaged. From there, a romance blossoms.
How do they fit with charming wastrel con artist Max (Sebastian Stan), super wealthy entrepreneur Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), and Hobbes’ romantic partner Madeline (Julianne Moore)? Well, those are some of the twists that await the audience. And even when one “learns” a connection, often they must revise it ten minutes later.
Now Presented In Multiple Points of View
Structurally, Sharper unfolds in sections named for each of the characters. For example, the opener, named after Tom, unfolds like a romance story. The next chapter moves the story back several months to find Max up to his tricks and recruiting a partner. And so on. Each shift in perspective shows us new story details and calls past facts into question.
It’s a fun storytelling technique but not necessarily that novel. Of course, the film borrows heavily from multiple previous films throughout, including The Grifters, Matchstick Men, and The Brothers Bloom, to rattle off just three. That’s ok, though. To paraphrase Picasso, borrowing or stealing is totally fine. Given that Sharper is a film all about cons and thefts, it even makes thematic sense. The homages and references don’t bother this reviewer in the least. Not even when they’re done better in those previous features.
If Sharper maintained the pace and tone of its opening romance or follow-up con artist’s apprentice sections, it would be easy to recommend. The kind of reliable film that isn’t a favorite, but you’d still linger on if you happened to encounter it channel surfacing. Unfortunately, the movie goes on from there. Two sections, in particular, derail the enterprise.
First is a Max-centric installment that sees him playing the part of a whining ne’er-do-well. It’s all part of a hustle, but even knowing that doesn’t stop Stan from coming across as a drip. He embodies his false identity too well, costing Sharper its sense of energy in the middle of the film. When Stan finally gets to be the Max we first met, again, dancing to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” in an empty bar, it’s a relief. However, it also feels a bit too late.
Still, the real nail in the coffin comes at the movie’s climax. The delight of intricate scam films comes when the story backs up to reveal every trick the audience may have missed along the way. It usually finishes with the twist that the seemingly defeated protagonist didn’t just survive the hustle, but played the whole thing to put him on top. Sharper has that final montage, but it delivers it limply. As a result, it can’t muster a sense of thrill. Worse, the explanation feels incomplete. The audience is given enough to understand how the reversal happened, but the details are where the fun lies. To show how it all went down but gloss over the nitty-gritty is to deny the film what should be its most potent pleasure.
Strong Performances Are Not Enough
It’s not the fault of the actors, certainly. Smith continues to grow with each performance. His transition from teen to adult actor has gone as smoothly as any in recent memory. The film’s structure sidelining him during its middle section benches one of Sharper’s best assets. His chemistry with Middleton feels honest as well. After her unfortunately thin role in The Tender Bar, seeing her take on the significantly more complex Sandra is a welcome surprise. It’s solid work in a part that demands shading and a sense of ambiguity.
Unsurprisingly, though, it is Moore that gets the most to do despite her supporting role. The script gives her a wide range of notes to hit, from unnervingly flirtatious to steely amorality. She not only nails them, but she makes them feel organically part of the same person. She ensures Madeline feels “real,” not just a collection of reactions.
Even the performances that don’t work as well still have plenty to recommend them. Lithgow suffers a little for screentime, certainly. That said, he delivers the mix of decent guy and untouchable rich guy well. The audience can see both his sense of genuine empathy and the kind of entitlement that comes from a life where “no” just means a bigger check is needed. Stan, as previously noted, gets bogged down when he must play the role within a role of a failson. Freed from that, though, he makes a good charismatic scumbag, all surface charm and barely hidden contempt for others.
Alas, good performances can’t overcome the film’s shortcomings. For a movie called Sharper, it feels undeniably blunted.
Sharper scams its way into theatres February 10 before pulling the big job on AppleTV+ February 17.
Rating: 5.5/10 SPECS
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.