Monday, March 27, 2023

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Film Review

‘Sharper’ is a tangle of overlapping storylines and surprise reveals


R | 112 minutes
Directed by: Benjamin Caron
Starring: Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, John Lithgow

Meet Tom (Justice Smith), a sensitive guy who spends the day surrounded by classic novels and first-edition collections while reading in his bookstore. How is this possible? Didn’t “You’ve Got Mail” officially kill the mom-and-pop book stores? 

Well, his family is loaded. Duh.

One day, Sandra (Briana Middleton), a Ph.D student looking for a copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” walks in. The two shyly strike up a flirtation, bonding over Japanese food. 

After that, the two begin going out frequently, but this is when “Sharper” makes its turn from rom-com to dark con. 

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The majority of “Sharper” is spent shifting these funds around. The standard scheming offers few surprising twists from the con artists, and twist-repetition keeps the audience from being too surprised by this film. 

Throughout this story, we switch between characters Tom, Sandra, Max (Sebastian Stan) and Madeline (Julianne Moore). Unfortunately, each new character is less compelling than the prior. 

Tom and Sandra dominate the first 20 minutes of “Sharper,” starting the film off on a high note that’s largely due to Middleton’s disarming performance and the dreamy, romantic look of the film. But this look fades abruptly into something slightly darker once the jig is up. 

After the opening, “Sharper” takes a journey back in time, filtering the action through a different character’s point of view in each chapter. Presenting the same story in multiple flashbacks depending on POV inherently creates an air of mystery and disorientation. This is famously done in “Pulp Fiction” and infamously done in Season 4 of “Arrested Development.” We’re kept at a distance from the characters on purpose, and we’re never quite sure what we’re watching, or what’s led these characters to this moment. 

Unfortunately, this only works for so long. 

Max’s motto of “you can’t cheat an honest man” allows him to keep remorse at bay for his con man lifestyle, especially since accumulating money is the most important part of his life. Although Max comes out as a huge, arrogant lunatic, Stan may deliver the best performance of the picture in that character. Max may or may not have some genuinely sinister truths concealed behind the surface. 

When the past finally catches up with the present, the sheer amount of misdirects we’ve been subject to turns the movie into the ouroboros. The film has trained us not to trust anything we see and to search for breadcrumbs of the truth. Regrettably, it runs out of clever ways to fool us in the process. 

As the script gels into a hollow mystery, the characters lose their ability to keep us on our toes. Stan, dripping with a reliable sleazy charm, is too slick to be trusted. Smith is handed a couple of turns that are so far afield there’s no real question about his intentions. And Middleton, up until a point a joy to watch, stalls out because of a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with her character. 

The only actor who’s able to remain even the slightest bit of an enigma is Julianne Moore as Madeline, a woman set to marry billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow). In a film where we purposefully spend so little time with each character as to keep their motivations a blur, Moore still manages to inject a bit of vulnerability that makes you believe you can trust her — for a while, anyway. 

As the film twists and turns to its illogical conclusion, Moore falls victim to the same weak “twist” as her fellow actors. The film’s third act struggles to satisfyingly scam the audience. 

Movies about con artists can be huge entertainments if you can buy into the con being played. If the filmmakers let you in on the game too early, or if they keep changing the rules every 20 minutes, you start feeling like a mark for watching. “Sharper” becomes such a tangle of overlapping storylines and surprise reveals that you assume the movie is building to a big, ingenious payoff worthy of its cast and gloss. What it settles on does not stem from clever misdirection but rather a rushed attempt at surprise. It’s a long con game that wants to be as intricate as chess but plays out more like Jenga. ♦

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