Producers: Erik Feig, Jessica Switch, Julianne Moore, Bart Freundlich, Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka Director: Benjamin Caron Screenplay: Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka Cast: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, John Lithgow Distributor: A24/Apple+
The secret to the con, on screen as in real life, is to keep the mark guessing. (Just ask George Santos.) There’s always room for a brilliantly twisty puzzler on screen, “The Usual Suspects” being the gold standard and “Glass Onion” a recent success story. And back-stabbing con-men and women can be great characters—witness “The Grifters.” Screenwriter Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka try their hand at the genre in “Sharper,” but though the film is about con piled upon con, the attempt at subterfuge doesn’t prove clever enough to keep the mark—the viewer in this case—sufficiently off-balance, even when delivered by a first-class ensemble. In fact, you’ll probably be several steps ahead of the filmmakers, rather than following their misdirection.
The plot is divided into chapters named after the main players. In the first, “Tom,” we see the titular fellow (Justice Smith), a NYC bookstore clerk, chatting up a pretty customer named Sandra (Briana Middleton), to whom he shows a first edition of her favorite novel “Jane Eyre.” They’re soon a couple, and when Sandra tearfully explains that her brother is on the hook for big money to drug dealers, Tom offers to help. It turns out he’s not just an impecunious clerk.
The second chapter, “Sandra,” reveals that she’s not quite what she seems either. Like the segments that follow, it involves a chronological hiccup, going back in time to reveal her past. Without revealing specifics that would spoil things for anyone interested in the movie, Sandra’s story leads to that of con-man “Max” (Sebastian Stan), which in turns takes us to “Madeline” (Julianne Moore), about a sophisticated lady married to Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), an ailing billionaire with little confidence in the business acumen of his only son. That chapter takes us back to the present, and a conclusion that’s meant to be shockingly satisfying in its double and triple twists but is actually quite weak, depending on the stupidity of characters who are supposed to be crafty and smart.
Worse, the filmmakers feel it necessary to follow it up with a montage explaining each convolution we’ve witnessed, as though we were too dense to have understood them in retrospect. That sort of ending was welcome in “Suspects,” where fitting together the clues strewn throughout was genuinely challenging. Here it’s not: if you jettisoned the entire back-and-forth device that the script employs and simply presented the narrative in strict chronological order, starting with Sandra and Max instead of Tom and proceeding from there, it would be a thoroughly pedestrian affair.
But one must allow the writers of puzzle pictures to mix up the pieces for optimal effect, and Gatewood and Tanaka do their best; it’s just that the image they eventually construct is pretty predictable.
Still, their work has been afforded elegant treatment. Production designer Kevin Thompson gives the locales an upscale or gritty look as called for, and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen infuses the visuals with noirish touches of light and shade; editor Yan Miles lets each segment unfold without undue haste, and Clint Mansell’s score adds a suspenseful vibe.
And under Benjamin Caron’s unfussy direction, all the cast make the most of their admittedly thin characters. Smith and Middleton are a likable couple, and both display dramatic heft in the flashbacks that explore their darker motivations. Stan brings roguish charisma to the slippery Max, and Moore a femme fatale quality to Madeline, though even an actress as good as she falters in the disappointing final stretch. Lithgow, meanwhile, is reliably arrogant as haughty Hobbes. The supporting cast is fine across the board.
But in the end “Sharper”—an old term for a swindler—isn’t true to its title. It’s more blunt than cutting.