2023, R, 116 min. Directed by Benjamin Caron. Starring Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton, Justice Smith, Phillip Johnson Richardson, John Lithgow, Blaise Corrigan.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 10, 2023

Why are movies about con artists so satisfying to watch? Are we hardwired to appreciate the huckster wisdom of P.T. Barnum: There’s a sucker born every minute? From the small-time Depression-era grifts in Paper Moon to the elaborate ragtime period setup in The Sting (perhaps the Seventies were the apex of flimflam cinema), there’s something undeniably pleasurable in observing a scam performed with the precision of a Swiss watch, devious human wiles scheming toward an underhanded end. (The heist film, the genre’s more complex first cousin, can be just as enjoyable, but is a different animal.) The hoodwink can be exhilarating – God help us – even when the victims are innocent dupes. Maybe we just perversely enjoy the experience of someone being played, particularly when the someone who’s fooled includes us.

The stylishly smart Sharper, shot as a cool NYC neo-noir by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is a worthy progeny in the genre. It offers hope that some filmmakers still think credibility – or some gullible variation thereof – remains preferable to an outlandish narrative indifferent to reasonable plausibility. The episodically structured script by screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka is a roundelay of confidence games that nicely comes full circle, with nothing left to chance. In the first integral episode, an unsuspecting mark is bilked for $350,000. From there, the film reverts in time for another two episodes to provide background for the initial con, only to temporally reset in a fourth to confound any expectations about where the movie is headed. Even if you think you’re one jump ahead of the intricate yet cogent storyline, that it's all become too predictable, suddenly you’re not so sure. Yes, there are a few hitches in the Mamet-lite screenplay. (Can you easily exit a plane sitting on the tarmac just before departure these days? And how long would it really take to learn to speak perfect Italian?) But Sharper ticks so assuredly in execution the hitches won’t distract you – and that may be the biggest con of all.

The performances are lean, without an ounce of fat on them. Relative newcomers Smith and Middleton make an attractive pair of lovers caught up in a deceivingly intense whirlwind romance in the opening chapter, while seasoned pro Moore and the criminally underrated Stan later provide the film with a kind of old-school gravitas as mother-and-son grifters preying on billionaires in the upper echelons of Manhattan society. Director Caron, who’s helmed close to a dozen episodes of The Crown on Netflix, may be a bloodless filmmaker, but he gets the job done. Occasionally, he shows a sense of humor, such as the movie’s fleeting homage to the three crooks spontaneously dancing the Madison in a French cafe in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Band of Outsiders. Here, the trio of scammers joyously gambols to a jukebox playing Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” in a windowless bar after scoring a hefty payday. Their moves may be much less sophisticated, but the esprit de corps remains the same.

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Sharper, Benjamin Caron, Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton, Justice Smith, Phillip Johnson Richardson, John Lithgow, Blaise Corrigan

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