‘Sharper’: Engaging performances and brisk pacing are a cut above some semi-farfetched threads

“Sharper” (2023) – “Is this real?” – Sandra (Briana Middleton)

“This is real.” – Tom (Justice Smith)

This lovely, intimate exchange between two 20-somethings in a New York City bookstore carries a double meaning.  Tom shows Sandra an original edition of “Jane Eyre”, and her question refers to the famous novel and the evident spark between them.

Tom has been coping with depression for a while, and now, this beautiful NYU Ph.D. student walks into his shop and makes small talk, and before you can say, “I would always rather be happy than dignified,” Tom and Sandra are a couple.

Tom mentions to a friend (or colleague) that she’s the girl of his dreams.

Rather than pose Sandra’s initial inquiry, the audience may wonder, “Will this romance last?”

Sandra (Briana Middleton)

In “Sharper”, director Benjamin Caron (“The Crown”, “Andor”) will answer this query and introduce several more in a lively crime drama, one that stages twists and turns and fields them through frank discourse and sleight of hand.  Caron’s film – written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, a pair who has collaborated on several past projects – pits charlatans against marks in battles bathed in leverage and deception.

No one robs banks during this 116-minute on-screen affair.  Still, massive sums of money could exchange hands between a small assortment of personalities as the stakes rise sky-high.

Engaging performances can be found everywhere.  From the get-go, Smith and Middleton effectively pull us into their story and the events that follow, ones involving three critical characters played by Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow. 

(For the record, can Julianne Moore star in everything, please?)

Richard (John Lithgow) and Madeline (Julianne Moore)

Cheers to the casting team, producers, and Caron, because they made spot-on choices for Max (Stan), Madeline (Moore), Richard (Lithgow), Tom, and Sandra. To prevent spoilers, the reasons why will not be discussed in this review.  Just know that the actors skillfully fall into their roles and give assured credibility to the on-screen alter-egos and their intentions.

Caron – who primarily works in TV – fashions his caper chronicle in episodic format.  Even though this two-hour narrative moves straight away without breaks, “Sharper” could, indeed, work as a four-part series.  Still, the method to Caron’s and the writers’ madness works nicely and sustains a brisk pace that keeps our eyes glued to the screen.  Meanwhile, catchy hits from Mattiel, Nina Simone, and Don Henley are music to our ears, including a track from the former Eagles drummer that accompanies an odd but captivating dance scene. 

Admittedly, one significant drawback with “Sharper” is that the marks’ buy-in can repeatedly feel semi-farfetched, but as P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” 

So, if the audience embraces that quote – and keeps it firmly in mind for a couple of hours – the frequent bouts of naivety can be dismissed.  Then again, this movie is set in the modern-day, so can’t social media or other cell phone technologies help our on-screen friends and foes? 

Well, not every production needs to transpire in 1987, and cinematic yarns that involve money and matters of the heart are timeless. 

Tom (Justice Smith)

Sandra asked, “Is it real?” 

She’s not the only player in “Sharper” who should raise this valuable inquiry.

⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Benjamin Caron

Written by: Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka

Starring: Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow

Rated: R

Runtime: 116 minutes

Image credits: Apple Original Films

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