“You can’t con an honest man.”
Throughout “Sharper,” a new neo-noir thriller from director Benjamin Caron, this is the philosophy con artists use to justify their scamming. But in a movie where you can’t trust anyone – not even the events you see unfolding on screen before your very eyes – we’re all in danger of being hustled, do-gooders and liars alike.
Initially, “Sharper” walks a fine line of duplicity, its cinematography slick and its structure tailormade to keep you guessing. But that glossy veneer of mystery quickly fades as the film starts to work against itself, riding twist after twist to nowhere. The structure that’s kept you guessing, leaving hints of the truth in its wake, weakly sputters out into a third act that, despite the film’s attempts at obscuring the truth, feels simultaneously unearned and foreseeable from a mile away.
Without giving too much away – because “Sharper” is more enjoyable the less you know going in – the movie hinges on Max (Sebastian Stan), a con artist who’s out to scam everyone and their mother. However, we don’t start with Max. We start with Tom (Justice Smith), the young, quietly rich owner of a struggling bookshop. One day, in walks Sandra (Briana Middleton), a PhD student looking for a copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The two shyly strike up a flirtation, bonding over Japanese food and first edition copies of “Jane Eyre.”
Their meet cute leads to a romantic, New York City montage, filled with long walks in the park and conversations about Fellini movies. But, when Sandra’s ne’er-do-well brother shows up in the middle of the night begging her for money, the spell is broken. She wants to help him, but she doesn’t have the amount of cash he needs – $350,000 to be exact. But who does have that kind of money lying around, exactly? A certain, smitten, generationally wealthy bookshop owner, perhaps?
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 – a look that fades into something slightly darker once the jig is up. After the opening, “Sharper” takes you on a journey back in time, filtering the action through a different character’s point of view in each chapter. Moving backwards inherently creates an air of mystery and disorientation. 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 particular moment. Unfortunately, this only works up for so long.
When the past finally catches up with the present, the sheer amount of misdirects we’ve been subject to by that point turns the movie into a self-devouring snake. The film has trained us not to trust anything we see and to search for breadcrumbs of the truth, but unfortunately, it runs out of clever ways to fool us in the process. As the script gels into a hollow mystery, the actors, through no real fault of their own, also 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 a billionaire named 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 truth into her performance, a 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 writing as her fellow actors. The film’s third act struggles to find one final con, one final way to scam the audience. What it settles on does not stem from clever misdirection, but rather a last-gasp attempt at surprise. Audiences, you can count yourselves among the honest men of the world – this one won’t fool you.