A young man falls madly in love only to discover he’s been conned… but that’s just the beginning of the twisty narrative in Sharper, a slick and well-made dive into the lives of New York City grifters now streaming on Apple TV+.
But while Sharper is strikingly directed by Benjamin Caron, gorgeously shot on location across the streets of New York City by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, and assuredly well-acted by its central quartet, it’s ultimately a con. By the climax, the script turns wholly unconvincing and Sharper goes from Mamet-level to sub-Focus.
That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like here. It all begins with two especially appealing performances in Sharper’s opening act, as lonely-heart bookstore owner Tom (Justice Smith) falls for literary student Sandra (Briana Middleton) in an opening meet-cute that could fool unsuspecting audiences into thinking they’re watching a conventional romance.
But all is not meant to be, as we learn in Sharper’s second act, which digs into Sandra’s backstory: as a drug addict and parolee who finds herself taken in by slick con artist Max (Sebastian Stan) and trained to con wealthy men out of money they won’t bother reporting to police.
Sharper’s layers are peeled back in the third and fourth acts, which dig further back to focus on Max and his mother Madeline (Julianne Moore), who is dating billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow). Of course, there are more twists yet to be revealed…
Due to Sharper’s unusual structure, Tom and Sandra – established as our protagonists over the first half of the movie – are largely absent from large portions of the second half of the movie. That puts us in the strange position of not really knowing who to root for during the film’s contentious climax, a decision the film seems to have made for us.
We expect that a film like Sharper will have multiple twists, but the writers (Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, who collaborated on the TV series Superstore) seem to have seen The Sting and called it a day. When the audience is two steps ahead of the seasoned grifters in the movie, there’s a real problem.
To add to that, the climactic actions taken by all four characters (and especially Madeline) are largely illogical, and completely betray what had been a smart thriller up to that point. Beyond anything else, the grifts and cons in these movies have to make sense… otherwise the illusion is broken.
Still, Sharper might have you going for a while, and until the finale it’s an entirely engaging ride thanks to efficient direction from Caron, a veteran TV director who has worked on shows like The Crown and Andor.
But while the slick production initially fools us into thinking this might be something like David Mamet’s House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner, Sharper’s screenplay ultimately can’t live up to the level of something like 2015’s Focus, starring Margot Robbie and Justice’s father Will Smith. While there’s still a lot to like here, that’s a real bummer.