Despite its solid performances & elegant look, the Apple TV+ thriller mostly falls flat.
We love movies about con artists, because they’re always glamorous, with attractive, elegantly dressed people slickly seducing their marks. It’s far sexier and intriguing than the sad reality of con artistry, which mostly seems to involve catfishing lonely people on dating sites, or swindling them out of cash on behalf of a made-up charity. No one likes to think about how easy it is to be fooled by someone who’s simply a good liar, it makes more sense that these things happen as part of an elaborate scheme created by a network of seasoned professionals alternately working together and stabbing each other in the back. Apple TV+’s Sharper scratches that particular itch, and looks good doing it, but ultimately feels a bit hollow, and has twists that are far more transparent than they should be.
Justice Smith stars as Tom, a shy young man who runs a used bookstore. Tom’s dream girl Sandra (Briana Middleton), an NYU grad student, walks into his store one day, and after some charming fumbling around they go on a date. The two seem to be quickly falling in love, until Sandra comes to Tom with a problem – her brother is in debt to some badfellas, and needs to come up with $350,000 in a hurry or they’ll kill him. Tom agrees to help her with the same sort of impassiveness as being asked to pay for lunch and assumes the problem is solved, only to discover that Sandra has simply disappeared with the money.
We then learn that Sandra is running a con under the tutelage of Max (Sebastian Stan, turning up the sleaze-ometer dial to “MAXIMUM”), who essentially trains her in the business, giving her an extensive backstory that includes a fake college degree and a heavily rehearsed anecdote about getting her heart broken on a trip to Italy. All of these bells and whistles are mostly so they can rip off men who immediately turn to mindless, gullible mush in the mere presence of an attractive young woman, but Max is aiming for something much bigger: a scheme involving the huge fortune of billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), and his second wife, Madeline (Julianne Moore), who happens to be Max’s mother.
At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll just mention that Tom continues to play a part in all this and leave it at that. The core tenet of most films about long cons is “no one is who they seem to be,” and indeed nearly every character in Sharper is either lying about or hiding something. The problem is that because it follows all the beats of a typical film in its genre, the audience anticipates the meant-to-be surprising reveals several steps ahead of time. One twist, involving how two of the characters are actually connected to each other, seems so obvious that it’s almost a letdown when it happens. It doesn’t help that the reveal comes less than halfway through the film, leaving the viewer plenty of time to ponder just how long this con has been going on, and how everything that happens rides entirely on not just a near-superhuman ability to read people, but to anticipate exactly how they’ll react in any given situation.
On the upside, Smith and Middleton are appealing leads, enough that it’d be nice if we got more time with them as a couple, even if things, of course, aren’t what they seem. Moore is all icy elegance, and Stan practically oozes menace from his pores, to the point where there’s some nice suspense in wondering how far he’ll go to pull everything off. Sharper certainly isn’t a bad film, not at all, and capably directed by Benjamin Caron, who helmed a few episodes of Andor. It’s just held back by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script, which doggedly sticks to the formula without zagging on the audience in any appreciable way. If everything was as easy to figure out as it is here, no one would ever try to pull a con again.
Sharper premieres on Apple TV+ February 17th.