Sexy and Silly (Yet Still Smart), Sharper Is a Perfectly Satisfying WhodunnitMovies Reviews Apple TV Plus
With Rian Johnson’s ongoing Knives Out series reinvigorating the popular appeal of the whodunit, it’s heartening to see other original scripts taking a crack at the genre—and a film like Sharper, directed by Benjamin Caron from a script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, proves that taking a chance on original mysteries can pay off. The heist-adjacent film presents a mesmerizing vision of New York that relishes in the city’s more intimate details while painting an overarching picture of those who survive by scamming one feckless schmuck after another.
The film opens with a meet-cute that channels Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, with Sandra (Briana Middleton) walking into Tom’s (Justice Smith) West Village bookstore in search of a hardcover copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The two immediately bond over their overlapping literary interests, and Tom shoots his shot by asking Sandra on a dinner date while he rings her up at the register. She politely declines—and so does her credit card. As she scrambles for cash, Tom solidifies his nice-guy status by putting the book on his own tab. As he’s closing up shop a few hours later, Sandra reappears with the money and a renewed response to his date night proposition. They eat at a humble Japanese spot, sparks fly, and commence a whirlwind romance. But their burgeoning (if emotionally intense) relationship is complicated when Sandra reveals that her troubled brother owes $350,000 to violent loan sharks. Desperate to help his new girlfriend, Tom reveals he can fully clear the debt, due to the cash he collects from his hedge fund-owning father. He hands over the money, wishes Sandra luck on her appointment with the unseen thugs, and she promptly disappears.
The film’s set-up might feel slightly formulaic—who could be so gullible?—but the narrative blossoms into interconnecting vignettes, slowly unveiling a con operation that oscillates between appearing impressively robust and shockingly sloppy. This is where the perspectives of Max (Sebastian Stan) and Madeline (Julianne Moore) come into play, former partners in crime who work different angles to con the same high-power New York family. While Madeline romances patriarch Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), Max discovers a troubled Sandra (going by “Sandy”) at a bizarre dive bar meeting with an odious parole officer. He quickly recognizes her potential and recruiting and rebranding her as Sandra (a la Pretty Woman) to hustle guileless rich folks. It doesn’t take long before he recognizes Richard’s son Tom as a veritable sitting duck.
While some of the film’s beats are predictable, just as many are legitimately suspenseful and surprising. To the film’s credit, including comparatively obvious clues and revelations makes the less overt ones feel more effective and rewarding. The ever-changing relationships between the characters are also wonderfully conveyed by the actors, crossing paths at different moments in time and recalibrating each interaction appropriately. Moore and Stan are the clear champions in this regard, their chemistry constantly sliding between an erotic allure and incessant irritation, often playing games that threaten to unravel their entire operation due to feelings of selfish pettiness. Middleton and Smith are slightly less enthralling, never advancing past the awkward yet overly adoring early onset of the courting process.
Sharper also shines in its depiction of New York City, highlighting oft-romanticized Manhattan enclaves, densely packed concrete landscapes and more obscure local landmarks that are long overdue for screen time. A wonderful shot of the Marine Parkway Bridge as seen from the distinctive parking lot of The People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Beach stands out in particular. Its inclusion, while somewhat ancillary, helps to weave a more nuanced texture of life as a New Yorker, an appreciated touch that typically falls by the wayside whenever the lives of the city’s wealthy inhabitants are portrayed on film (suffice to say, a far-flung queer beach destination captured during the off-season is a delightfully off-kilter location choice for the film’s climax).
It’s interesting to note the similarities between Sharper and Glass Onion, especially since both films feature a central protagonist who adopts a bougie alter ego to get what they want. Yet while both films also deal with rich idiots getting their comeuppance, Sharper feels more wickedly gratifying due to its lack of a rigid moral compass. In Glass Onion, the hunt for justice and quest for accountability is what propels the plot and outright tells the audience who to root for. Caron’s directorial effort, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to shift the goal posts around for the sole purpose of having fun and keeping things interesting. There might not be someone entirely deserving or worthy of the $9 billion fortune that’s up for grabs—but it’s entertaining enough to watch the money constantly switching hands, unsure of whose conniving nature will win out and outsmart the rest. Instances of betrayal, heartbreak and tasteful touches of heavy petting only add to the overall experience.
Director: Benjamin Caron
Writers: Brian Gatewood, Alessandro Tanaka
Stars: Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, Briana Middleton, Justice Smith, John Lithgow
Release Date: February 10, 2023 (A24/Apple TV+)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan