“Sharper” opens with a fake out—in its own title. A dictionary definition fades up on the screen, declaring “sharper” as a noun that means “one who lives by their wits.” This little bit of cheeky word play is a harbinger for the never-ending rug pulls and elaborate disappointments to come in this con artist thriller, directed by longtime TV director Benjamin Caron and written by the team of Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka. Things are never what they seem in “Sharper.”
The film is a slickly-executed piece, an enjoyable but almost unbearably twisty puzzle box of narrative fun, but eleven everything slots together the box is unfortunately empty. Just like the characters in the film who seem to con, grift, and scam just because they can, it feels a bit like the filmmakers tied the narrative up in knots just so they could untangle it in front of us with a flourish, a “ ta-da!” that feels about as substantial as a trick, not a treat.
We open on a meet-cute: a cozy Lower East Side rare books store where a shy young shop clerk, Tom (Justice Smith) connects with a comely NYU grad student, Sandra (Briana Middleton), over a copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” It takes a few fumbling attempts, but the two eventually end up at the Japanese spot around the corner and, later, they share a first kiss over a first edition of “Jane Eyre.” A charming falling-in-love montage dreams, but this is not the end of the story, or even the beginning.
“Sharper” is structured in chapters, and the first one, “Tom” falls somewhere in the middle of the story. Each chapter follows a main character, puzzle pieces snapping into place to reveal the larger picture. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen crafts a specific look for each chapter, reflecting each character and the specific moment in their life that we follow. Sandra’s chapter is gritty and dark, a harsh, cold, dangerous world far from the warm red and wooden interiors that Tom inhabits.
Sandra, or Sandy, is in a bad way when she stumbles into Max (Sebastian Stan) and enters his slice of New York City: shiny and chrome like his expensive watch and sports car, he glides sleekly, silently through the New York City lights like a snake. Max is all surface, and it is an impressive one. He shows Sandra how to buff and shine her own outward appearance to a high gloss in a kind of “My Fair Lady” montage, training her speech, changing her look, shaping her into a classy young woman who can easily pass for a Vassar grad , crafting catnip for a bookish young man.
Max himself slides with ease into an even higher echelon of New York, the world of Madeline (Julianne Moore). Here it is all fine wines and charity galas; Luxe surfaces and textures, cream and leather, the polished walls of an Upper East Side apartment belonging to Madeline’s billionaire businessman boyfriend (John Lithgow).
All of these characters are knit together in ways that it would be a disservice to the reader to reveal—one wouldn’t want to deprive an audience of some of the more satisfying (and icky) revelations in “Sharper.” But that narrative structure also makes it impossible to write about this movie at length.
Suffice it to say that “Sharper” fits into the increasingly popular scam artist/grifter genre that is so popular in the true crime and podcast space right now. In these stories of slippery identities and misplaced trust, the money is not the point—it’s the emotional wreckage and the human collateral damage that scammers leave behind. Gatewood and Tanaka center an emotional wound as the motivator for the story, but when the scammed becomes the scammer it drains some of its resonance.
Anyone who has been misled, lied to, deceived, or dishonestly relieved of their money, time, or love has spent countless hours fantasizing about revenge, and there is a certain satisfaction in the kind of comeuppance that fiction can deliver. But the best revenge isn’t stooping to the level of the scammer. There’s no satisfying closure in that choice, not in real life, and not in “Sharper” either, which leaves loose threads dangling in an attempt to wrap it all up.
The whole endeavor, despite how expertly photographed and impeccably acted, is morally murky and ultimately hollow. Favoring plot twists over atmosphere, setting, place, mood, and tone makes “Sharper” a shiny, reflective bauble that’s fun to play with for the running time of the film but is ultimately ephemeral and forgettable—a cinematic wisp. Just like the characters in the film, Caron, Gatewood, and Tanaka pull off the trick they undertake, but at what cost to their own story?