The psychological thriller "Sharper" begins with an onscreen definition of its title word: "One who lives by their wits." While you may find yourself wishing this movie, directed by Benjamin Caron (whose credits include multiple episodes of "The Crown"), was just a bit sharper, it's an engrossing-enough tale of con artists; of people putting on a performance in order to gain something. You can see why the cast would be drawn to this story: Nearly every character in "Sharper" is an actor, of the uncredited sort; almost nobody is exactly what they seem.
Because of this, any sort of synopsis of "Sharper" is fraught with peril — it's a story full of twists that you might guess even without my help (I did, most of them). So I'll just say that it takes place in contemporary Manhattan, where the settings include a charming used-book store, a posh Upper East Side apartment and a carefully seedy bar. (All of these places are much darker than they need to be; extra-dramatic lighting is apparently a hallmark of the con artist's world.) The main characters, in order of when we meet them, are Tom (Justice Smith), Sandra (Briana Middleton), Max (Sebastian Stan), Madeline (Julianne Moore) and Richard (John Lithgow). The screenplay, by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, unfolds as a sort of time-traveling daisy chain, taking us backward and forward to gradually reveal the characters' truths, and their connections to each other. And of that I'll say no more.
Though "Sharper" often feels like a book you've read before (I had the curious sensation, while watching it, that I vaguely remembered what was happening next, as if I'd watched it many years ago), it's mostly as good as it needs to be. Its dialogue often has a pleasantly noirish snap, in which we learn a few things about scamming; to wit, "If you're going to steal, steal a lot," "Never feel sorry for the mark," and "If they're not looking for you, they don't see you."
And while the performances are a bit uneven (Stan, in particularly, seems to be overplaying his character's habitual scowl), every minute of Moore in this film is a delight. Watch her closely, the way you might watch the hands of a fast-dealing cardsharp, and be rewarded: a perfect, tiny can-you-believe-this eye roll here, a feline smile melting into laughter there. Great acting is a con game, of the highest order, and it's a pleasure to be Moore's mark.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Rated: R (for language throughout and some sexual references)
Running time: 1:56
How to watch: On Apple TV+ Friday
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