The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Movie review: ‘Sharper’ a con flick that can fool its characters but not the viewer

- By Mark Meszoros THE NEWS-HERALD,

“Sharper” Rated: R, for language throughout and some sexual references. Running time: 1:56. ★★ (out of 4)

Perhaps we've just seen too many con movies.

Or perhaps “Sharper” — billed as “a neo-noir thriller set in the bedrooms, barrooms and boardrooms of New York City,” one in which “everyone is out for themselves and no one is exactly who they seem” — isn't as sharp as it needs to be.

Already in select theaters, “Sharper” debuts on Apple TV+ this week.

It does so with some relatively big names in its ensemble cast, Sebastian Stan and Julianne Moore, the latter having helped bring the movie from screenplay to screen as a producer.

That script is the work of Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, who, according to the film's production notes, have known each other since their days in Columbia University's screenwrit­ing program. Originally the work of Tanaka, the idea apparently received a lukewarm response in one of his classes. A decade and a half later, he shared the now-old idea with Gatewood, and the two got to work on it.

The collaborat­ion led to it landing in 2020 on the Hollywood Black List, an annual collection of promising unproduced screenplay­s. When Moore got her hands on it, she says she was quite taken by it.

However, even though there is steady directoria­l work by Benjamin Caron — whose credits include episodes of “Sherlock,” “The Crown” and “Andor,” three excellent series — is only so entrancing.

Worse, it's highly predictabl­e.

Oh, sure, we don't know where it's heading when soft-spoken book lover Tom (Justice Smith, “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”) encounters Sandra (Briana Middleton, “The Tender Bar”). She is working toward her Ph.D. in literature, and he is working to heal from an emotional wound while hiding away in an unprofitab­le bookstore he runs that is supported by his incredibly wealthy father. They hit it off quickly and fall into a relationsh­ip.

Deeper into the movie, though, once we've met Stan's Max and Moore's Madeline, we can start to map out the story, including many of its requisite twists and turns, as well as its ultimate destinatio­n.

We also meet Tom's aforementi­oned father,

Richard (John Lithgow), who is in a relationsh­ip with Madeline.

To reveal more about how these five people connect to one another either would be to spoil or to require us to be part of the deception — or both — so we'll leave it there.

The tale crafted by Tanaka and Gatewood — who previously collaborat­ed on the 2011 comedy “The Sitter” — is at its best early when we're enjoying the chemistry of Tom and Sandra (and, thus, of Smith and Middleton). However, even if you didn't know going into the movie it would involve a parade of con jobs, you'd start to sniff out

the first one fairly quickly.

From there, “Sharper” is duller, despite solid work by Caron, who helps to ensure the film is always nice to look at and properly paced. (You don't necessaril­y need to know which episodes of “The Crown” he's directed; that he has helmed 14 of them assures you that at least some of them are gems given that show's consistent quality.)

Just about all other aspects of “Sharper” are mediocre, including the acting of Moore (”Still Alice,” “Far From Heaven”), Stan (“Pam & Tommy,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”) and Lithgow (”Bombshell,” “The Crown”). Each has

been better when given better material with which to work.

“Sharper” begins with onscreen text reminding us of the noun form of the word, defining a sharper as “one who lives by their wits.”

That makes it all the more disappoint­ing when, late in the affair, certain characters fall for a maneuver we think they should have seen coming.

As a viewer, you hope for one last slice of the knife from “Sharper,” that final piece of the puzzle you couldn't move into place.

But no, it's just another con movie, and maybe you've just seen too many.

 ?? Apple TV+/TNS ?? Max (Sebastian Stan) listens in on a conversati­on between Madeline (Julianne Moore) and Richard (John Lithgow) in a scene from “Sharper.”
Apple TV+/TNS Max (Sebastian Stan) listens in on a conversati­on between Madeline (Julianne Moore) and Richard (John Lithgow) in a scene from “Sharper.”

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