A con artist takes on Manhattan’s billionaires.
If you are prone to whiplash or have any back or neck problems, I would advise you to skip Benjamin Caron’s “Sharper,” a crime drama that has more twists and turns than San Francisco’s Lombard Street. The script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka aspires to be in the same league as David Mamet’s “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner.” Those smartly plotted, meticulously rendered films, built around characters executing a long con, hum along smoothly like a well-oiled machine, never laboring in the way they set up their complex stories or unveiling their surprises.
With “Sharper,” you see the plot machine at work, so much of its machinations obvious and the purpose of its characters plain. Your mileage will vary as far as how much you buy into the movie as not only is its intent obvious, but Caron and his writers are trying a little too hard throughout, the whole film coming off as a bit more clever than it should be. That the veteran cast is fully invested helps.
An extended prologue sets up the first of many “nothing-is-as-it-seems” scenarios. Tom (Justice Smith), minding his own business in the tony New York City bookstore he owns, becomes smitten with Sandra (Briana Middleton), a customer who initially plays coy but then “reluctantly” agrees to go out with him. She’s charming, he’s vulnerable and before you know it, they are in love. That’s when the troubles start as suddenly, Sandra’s brother shows up. He’s in trouble! He owes someone $350,000! Sandra wants to help but doesn’t know what to do! Tom says, ‘My father has money! Let me help!’ Now, of course, this isn’t rendered so dramatically that it needs all of those exclamation points, but you can see what’s happening from a mile away.
What you don’t see coming is the way in which the story is structured. We come to realize that this tragic Tom-Sandra scenario is something that’s happened in the past…or is it the future? Gatewood and Tanaka’s decision to shake up the timeline of the film proves to be the most innovative thing about it, a surprising turn of events that, while we may know a con or two is afoot and that no one should be trusted, keeps us guessing for a while, wondering how all the pieces fall together.
And there are quite a few of them to keep track of. I would be doing all involved a disservice if I laid out how everyone is connected, so here are the bare bones. There’s a smooth operator named Max (Sebastian Stan) whose slick appearance belies his corrupt heart; Madeline (Julianne Moore) is a recent bride who is not quite used to the Central Park digs she shares with her billionaire husband Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow). That’s all you’re getting out of me.
There are a great many moving parts here and it’s to Caron’s credit that he tells the story briskly and clearly, what with the script being exposition heavy. How these characters’ paths cross is for you to discover. For the most part, the foundation of Gatewood and Tanaka’s story is grounded by a sense of logic that lends a sense of realism to the peculiar events that play out. Granted, they push the bounds of credibility in the third act, which takes a violent turn. Still, the final twist is not only well-earned but holds water, which is all that matters. In the end, “Sharper” doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence and that may be its most impressive trick.
While the story is twisted, careening around every corner at high speed, the actors give us a top performance and we are on the edge of our seat awaiting the next shoe to drop.
To read Pam’s review in its entirety, go to: