The trick to Sharper––a new con picture from director Benjamin Caron––is that it’s deceivingly simple. Featuring multiple lead characters, many points of view, and more twists than a Twizzler, this construct may feel convoluted in spots. Yet it is a concise, well-told piece of entertainment that’s smart enough to know being too clever can be a crutch.
We open on a meet-cute. Sandra (Briana Middleton) stumbles into a small NYC bookstore owned by Tom (Justice Smith). They’re both shy sorts, he a bit more than she. Their whirlwind romance is interrupted by the needs of Sandra’s unseen brother. He is in debt and in danger and needs a whole bunch of money as soon as possible. Tom––quietly rich thanks to his father (John Lithgow)––offers to help out. Begrudgingly, Sandra accepts.
If you’ve ever seen a con film before, you know what happens next. Smartly, screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka know that you probably know, so they quickly turn the narrative another way. All of a sudden we’re learning a little more about Sandra; or, more correctly, “Sandra.” Identities begin turning murky. It’s here that Sharper evolves into a Russian-doll-of-sorts, revealing more of itself with every passing sequence focused on a different character.
Caron is a more-than-capable craftsman (a few of the best Andor episodes were under his stead) and he does crisp work with director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Class disparity is on full display throughout, and the ever-changing aesthetic reflects as much. The high-rises where the rich and powerful live are lit too perfectly, the overcooked design meticulous as to be boring. Meanwhile, down on the street in the outer boroughs, shadows emerge and noir homages abound. Later on in the film there is a complete break in setting and form, a decision that is effectively unsettling.
Along with Smith and Middleton are established vets Lithgow, Sebastian Stan, and the great Julianne Moore (also a producer here). All five offer just enough emotional investment while never overreaching in dramatics. This is, after all, a fun piece of work before it’s anything else. Things will get ridiculous, and it’s refreshing that all involved seem to be onboard for the ride. Stan, in particular, is having fun throughout. Like so many Marvel players, constant–if very solid–work in that machine has left precious little time for other, riskier endeavors. (Though let’s not forget Destroyer.) It’s a pleasure to watch him stretch his muscles and get a little nasty. There’s one particular tête-à-tête with Moore that emerges as one of the film’s strongest scenes. In a mere few minutes, the tone of the entire picture plays out between its two all-stars.
The risk of any con movie is that the mark reveals itself to be the audience. Thankfully that’s not the case here. And while the destination isn’t anywhere particularly groundbreaking, the journey is well worth the price of admission.
Sharper arrives in theaters on February 10 and lands on Apple TV+ on February 17.