“How can you do what you do?” “Practice.”
One of the chief complaints I know audiences will have when it comes to the new mystery/thriller Sharper is the fact that it offers up a quintet of central characters, all of whom are more or less unlikable. Now more than ever, audiences seem especially hung up on having someone to root for, a hero on the screen that will persevere and triumph by the film’s end. Sharper doesn’t really have anyone like that. But what else is there to be expected from a movie about grifters? Surely no one was expecting a group of con artists with hearts of gold. Those who were hoping for such characters might be better off revisiting 1991’s Curly Sue. Sharper, however, is a film so intent on exploring the mentality and overall world of the con artist, it’s above bending to audience expectations. If only it didn’t think it was above other elements.
Directed by Benjamin Caron with a script from Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, Sharper follows a trio of con artists (Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, and Brianna Middleton) who try to integrate themselves into the life of a wealthy Manhattan billionaire (John Lithgow) and his estranged son (Justice Smith).
Sharper opens in a very intriguing way, introducing each of the main characters with title cards, which then leads into large portions of the film where they are more or less the primary focus, ensuring the audience gets to know who these people are, while still keeping them at a distance. This a somewhat tantalizing and necessary choice since no one is ever meant to fully know a con. Because of this, Sharper almost feels like a series of short films that are intricately connected. Caron seems to have fun pulling the audience from one direction to another, brilliantly illustrating the rules and nature of the con world in the process. It’s here where the architecture of the film works to its advantage. No sooner are we taken along on one character’s journey than we are pulled from them and placed into another’s. The switching of vantage points may delight some and frustrate others, but it proves a subtle and effective way to show the harsh, brutal reality of that world. If all this makes it sound as if Sharper is a somewhat cynical film, that’s because it is. To its credit, however, it kind of has to be.
The film may be doing right in the way it’s structured, but it also can’t help but feel like it’s lacking an essential ingredient or two. Because the filmmakers have tried to present the film as a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, it becomes apparent that there’s a piece or two missing, specifically a crucial middle act where an even further look into the confidences and character dynamics would have given it some much-needed weight. As it stands, characters perform actions that feel more plot-driven than anything else in Sharper’s second half, culminating in a stand-off finale that lies somewhere between anticlimactic and just plain lousy. At the risk of sounding cliché, were the filmmakers trying to pull one over on us? Did they take their storytelling methods too far? It feels like those involved were too obsessed with the many twists and turns which go from obvious to less obvious, that they shortchanged the human element of the story. Maybe if we’d spent more time with the people on the screen, they would have gained our trust and therefore, when their swindles were revealed, we wouldn’t have been left feeling so cheated.
A role in a con film is an actor’s dream since such films offer up characters with different facades and layers to explore. This is true with Sharper, and every actor within the cast knows the opportunity that’s laying before them. Moore is just as good as you’d expect balancing her high society wife act with that of the long-time grifter Madeline is. The beauty of her work here is that no matter what “part” she’s playing, Moore makes sure the audience always sees Madeleine. As her partner-in-crime, Stan enjoys what is probably his best role to date. After trying to make a name for himself outside of the Marvel world, the actor dives deep into a character so deeply damaged and despondent, he struggles to remember who he was before.
Middleton, meanwhile, shines in what is perhaps the most challenging role of the film, taking Sandra to a variety of dark places throughout the film. With a mixture of wildness and vulnerability, the actress isn’t shy about venturing into the darker places of her character, which Sharper is all the better for. Smith may have the least showy role of the ensemble, but offers up a much-needed down-to-earth quality whenever he shows up, while Lithgow delivers the kind of top-notch performance audiences have come to know him for.
Despite the misgivings I have about the film, there’s still something admirable about Sharper that keeps me from flat-out dismissing it. I can’t point to any one aspect of this, although there are plenty. The slickness of the production (wonderfully showing the different sides of New York) and the way the actors bring the material to life certainly count for a lot. Seeing the various ways the cons con each other (and the stagecraft that accompanies every con) is never not intriguing. Perhaps the best part of Sharper is its ending. By the last scene, a hint of hope exists at the end of this tale that’s tough to deny and comes with a question mark, suggesting that those who do make it through will always be left wondering. Cons to the end.