Sharper – Review

“The issue is not the absurdity, but rather, just the opposite: it doesn’t have enough verve to let us revel in it, and let more commanding and truly singular approach take hold.”

by Ken Bakely

It’s tempting to say that Benjamin Caron’s Sharper is a movie that works best if you let it happen, ignoring the details and simply focusing on the spectacle of its twists and turns. There’s certainly a lot of surface-level fun here, but this is also a movie deeply invested in the details of its nesting doll-style revelations – so much so that it demands your attention to a degree that, paradoxically, all but forces you to see the tattered string and tape holding the tricks in place. Benjamin Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script presents the story in the form of five chapters, presented in roughly reverse chronological order until the midpoint, before speeding back towards the start and proceeding on. We begin by meeting Tom (Justice Smith), a young man in New York who owns a used bookstore and comes from quite a bit of money. One day, a graduate student named Sandra (Briana Middleton) stops by his store, and they quickly strike up a relationship that encounters a sudden complication when Sandra’s estranged brother appears at her door, saying that he’s on the run for his life and needs a large sum of money. Tom can certainly pull the funds together, but from there, things get strange – Sandra might have more going on in her life than she let on, and tracing her background, we arrive at the story of a con man she’s met, named Max (Sebastian Stan), whose own unusual circumstances lead us to the story of Madeline (Julianne Moore), who has just married Richard (John Lithgow), a billionaire businessman. All you need to know is that they are all, of course, closely linked together – in complicated ways that none of them fully understand on their own. 

You will notice that I’ve become increasingly cagey with my descriptions of these characters. This is by design, since Sharper’s twists all revolve around suddenly recalibrating exactly what they’re doing and what they really want – Max is far from the only character pulling one over – and exactly how all of their narratives end up closely entwined. Caron, in his feature directorial debut, finds extraordinary enjoyment in sweeping the viewer along, breathlessly pulling out the rugs from under us. The ensemble cast roves around splashy and shiny setpieces, chewing the scenery to bits and clearly having a lot of fun doing it, selling each new complication and each elaborately executed con with sparkling enthusiasm. And they weather it all, from the smallest to the largest contrivances, somehow managing to avoid getting completely lost within the chaos. The script goes bigger with every act, until it’s reached the point of ecstatic frenzy, breathlessly reciting each bizarre development of the movie’s most climactic moment – the one which, through the minutes that follow, is revealed to be the one that ties every piece of the movie together, with only a brief finale left to finish wrapping things up. And it is here, when it should count the most, that the movie’s central problems gradually emerge to the point of being on full display.

It’s not that it feels too predictable – though the developments on the journey there won’t shock anyone who’s remotely familiar with these kinds of stories –  but that the viewer is hardly given enough space to contemplate whether it could be predictable or not. Sharper escalates its stakes to the point where you can hardly believe the tangled web that presents in totality, because you realize just how much it has detached itself from making any real sense at all.  This should not be considered a problem in and of itself – there are few types of viewers less interesting those who exhaustively litigate plot details for remote inconsistencies – but the movie puts enough emphasis on building up these characters and revealing what their actual motivations are that, once it has upended everything a certain number of times, it doesn’t know where else to go. There comes a point where there’s nothing left to do but just watch and wait for the next shoe to drop – though I do emphasize that for a movie as visually splendid and entertainingly performed as this one, there are certainly worse things in the world than just watching a scene unfold. The issue is not the absurdity, but rather, just the opposite: it doesn’t have enough verve to let us revel in it, and let a more commanding and truly singular approach take hold.