Benjamin Caron’s “Sharper,” now in limited theatrical release and streaming on Apple TV+ next week, allows one to imagine what Julianne Moore and John Lithgow could have done with an ‘80s David Mamet screenplay like “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner.” It’s one of those narrative jigsaw puzzles that feels like it went from theatrical feature to streaming series sometime in the mid-‘10s. And so there’s a bit of a jolt of enjoyment at just watching it unfold, moving back and forth through various cons until the final one lands on the table. The problem is that the Mamet brand of tough-talking puzzle movie is harder to pull off than it looks, and writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka just don’t have the gift of dialogue needed to elevate this thriller beyond its foundation. Mamet’s best films used dialogue as a weapon as his characters alternately withheld and revealed like Ricky Jay doing a magic trick. “Sharper” clearly wants to mimic that aesthetic, but the whole thing is only good enough as a diversion.
Justice Smith plays Tom, a soft-spoken young man who works at an old bookstore, selling first editions of famous novels. One night, a beautiful young woman named Sandra (relative newcomer Briana Middleton, more than holding her own opposite some legends) enters Tom’s shop, and the two have instant chemistry. They flirt and eventually go to dinner, jumping into a quick relationship. After only a couple of weeks, Sandra is meeting Tom’s friends, and the L-word is even thrown around. Then she reveals she has a brother who is in trouble. He needs some cash, an insane amount of cash. After the danger for Sandra’s brother intensifies, Tom agrees to get the funds from his extremely wealthy father, Richard (John Lithgow). Of course, Sandra disappears with the money.
Don’t worry. That’s not a major spoiler, only the first of several con games and revelations revealed through Gatewood and Tanaka’s vignette structure, one that focuses on one character at a time, revealing the role they play in a script that sometimes stretches credulity as it flashes back and sometimes even sideways. The second vignette jumps back to reveal how Sandy became Sandra under the tutelage of a slimy con artist named Max (Sebastian Stan), who just happens to have a connection to Madeline (Julianne Moore), the new wife of, you guessed it, Richard.
“Sharper” opens with a definition of its title: “One who lives by their wits.” That should give you an idea of how smart this script thinks it is. Once featured on the Black List, it’s one of those chronological jumbles that streamers adore because it drops a revelation every couple of minutes like a metronome. But there’s a simple joy in watching the thriller machine at work. We don’t get movies like this very often anymore, and I enjoyed watching the succession of betrayals and double-crosses, even if I could tell where it was going to end long before it did.
And yet it’s easy to see where “Sharper” is a little dull. Not only do the cons become a bit unbelievable, especially the ease with which the final one is executed, but you realize that these characters are pretty shallowly drawn. Again, Mamet got so much mileage out of incisive dialogue. We don’t need extensive backstory if the dialogue can convey that these people are smart enough and street savvy enough to pull off their con games. “Sharper” doesn’t quite connect those dots.
It’s also too stylish by half. This is a sleek affair that pretends to traffic in desperate people but rarely lets its characters sweat. It has too little dirt under its fingernails and too little blood pumping through its veins. It needs to feel more dangerous to be truly effective.
Having said all of that, it goes down smoothly. Most of the talented cast is minimally challenged by the script—even if it’s fun to see Moore chewing on something that allows her to be more playful—but Middleton has a lot to juggle as Sandra/Sandy goes through several iterations in this twisty tale. She’s very engaging in a way that makes one want to see her again in a similar project. Maybe something pointier.
In theatres today and available on Apple TV+ on February 17th.