The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Apple TV+] - SHARPER | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Apple TV+] - SHARPER

Sharper review
A con artist targets Manhattan's elites.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Benjamin Caron

Starring: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, Darren Goldstein, John Lithgow

Sharper poster

It's easy to imagine a 1980s version of Sharper directed by Adrian Lyne with a screenplay by David Mamet and a score by Giorgio Moroder. Its drama plays out in the world of Manhattan elites, a milieu that seems permanently stuck in that excessive decade. Every time a camera glides through some multi-millionaire's high-rise apartment it always feels like we're watching a Paul Schrader movie from 1983. It's only a matter of time before shoulder pads make a return.

Had Sharper been made by the likes of Schrader, Mamet or Lyne four decades ago it may not have been a better movie but it no doubt would have been more interesting. Sharper is about con artists, people who put on a deceptive front to lure in unsuspecting marks, and the movie itself does likewise. It's superficially sleek and sexy, which mainstream American movies rarely are today, and for much of its running time it causes you to lean in as it peels back the layers of its tale. But once a certain amount of layers have been peeled it reveals itself as hollow and derivative. Few recent movies have had such a gulf between a gripping first half and a shrug-worthy second half.

Sharper review

The deception begins with an opening meet cute between depressed young bookstore owner Tom (Justice Smith) and Sandra (Briana Middleton), a suspiciously pretty and charming student who agrees to accompany him for a meal at a nearby restaurant. Tom is immediately smitten and soon he's opening up both his heart and his store's cabinet of rare books. It's as convincing as any rom-com setup, but of course this is a thriller. Director Benjamin Caron, writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, and Smith and Middleton do a fine job of selling the deception however, and so when one of the young lovers is screwed over financially by the other it's a sharp reminder that this is very much an anti-romance.

Sharper may not have romance on its mind, but it is sexy, particularly when we flashback to a Pygmalion-esque storyline that sees suave con-man Max (Sebastian Stan) take Sandra, now a junkie known as Sandy, under his wing and train her in the art of the con. Think of Walter Pidgeon and James Coburn teaching Michael Sarrazin and Trish Van Devere how to be professional pickpockets in Harry in Your Pocket, but with sexual tension (come to think of it, Van Devere plays a character named Sandy in that movie too...hmm). As we watch Sandy become Sandra, going from tough-talking street rat to a glamour queen capable of seducing married men in hotel bars, we're also watching newcomer Middleton become a bona fide movie star. Were it not for the subsequent introduction of Julianne Moore, Middleton's later absence from the second half might be more damning.

Sharper review

Moore shows up as Madeline, another con artist inveigling herself into the heart of multi-billionaire Richard (John Lithgow), who happens to be Tom's father, and also happens to be suffering from some terminal illness. As the film moves towards a clichéd climax that sees a gun drawn, it becomes less interested in its characters and too caught up in how it's going to neatly wrap everything up.

Sharper wildly overestimates how much we care about the victims of its con artist antagonists. Sure, it sucks that Tom has his heart broken, but haven't we all at some point? The difference is we don't have millions in our bank accounts to console ourselves with. Similarly, it's impossible to give a damn about Richard. The source of his wealth is ambiguous, but let's face it, you can earn thousands, maybe even millions, but billions can only be stolen. Besides, Madeline's deception is giving him a pretty good deal, allowing him to live out his final days with an attractive, younger woman who makes him happy.

Sharper review

So too does the movie underestimate how much we might end up rooting for its nominal villains. The reason the crime genre is so enticing is that it allows the viewer to vicariously live out a fantasy of throwing off the shackles of decency and imagine living outside law and morality for 90 minutes or so. We root for the anti-heroes of crime thrillers despite our own ethics, because we're secretly jealous of their disregard for societal norms. There's also something satisfying about watching people who are very good at what they do, even if what they do is illegal and immoral. We want Max, Madeline and Sandra to succeed because they're very good at being con artists, and it's natural to want to see people rewarded for good work. But Sharper doesn't seem to grasp any of this and instead thinks that we're going to feel sorry for the elites who live in the clouds above Manhattan.

It may end in a thoroughly unsatisfying manner, with a "crime doesn't pay" coda that belongs in a Hays Code-era gangster picture, but for its first two thirds Sharper is a genuinely thrilling thriller, populated by charismatic stars playing people whose livelihood depends on charisma. Nobody fucks in Hollywood movies anymore, but the characters here at least seem like they possess libidos. In these oddly chaste times, that's something.

Sharper is on Apple TV+ now.

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