Sharper, review: Julianne Moore does a superb job in this sleek scam thriller

Sharper, Justice Smith and Julianne Moore - Alison Cohen Rosa/Apple TV
Sharper, Justice Smith and Julianne Moore – Alison Cohen Rosa/Apple TV

Sharper is using the word in its noun form. You wouldn’t play poker with any of the wily customers in this sleek, layered scam thriller, or you’d walk away with nothing but lint in your pockets.

This lot will date you for weeks, trick you into a whopping loan, then break your heart, or seduce you when your health is failing and score the lot – $9.2bn in a hedge fund, to be exact. It’s possible they might feel some flickers of remorse beneath – these are broken people themselves, deep down – but then this may just all be part of the act.

Poor Tom (Justice Smith, adorably mopey) is the first sap to get taken for a ride. The depressed trust-fund kid of a New York financier, Richard (John Lithgow), he has no head for business, and just wants to run his antiquarian bookshop in peace.

The bluesy first chapter sets him up with an ultra-literate, polished dream girl, Sandra (Briana Middleton), who’s working on her PhD in black feminism. But things move suspiciously fast. Sussing out her angle is our initial challenge, turned on its head when the second part hops back to her point of view – and then further back to hardbitten Max (Sebastian Stan), a recovering addict who’s learned every grift in the book.

Laying out the specifics of Sharper’s plot can’t help but do it a disservice – you want this deck dealt face down. Simply assume – as in The Sting (1973), The Grifters (1990), or David Mamet’s House of Games (1987), that nothing is what it seems. So if I’m telling you that Julianne Moore’s Madeline is Max’s mother, and married to Richard, and has never met Sandra, only two out of three of those things are true. (Perhaps.) Moore is a great actress doing a superbly professional job of playing one, while Stan leans into a sour, hard air of disrepute, and Middleton’s something of a revelation.

Sharper manages a half-thesis on wealth, bitterness, trust, and entitlement, which puts it a little in league with Succession or The White Lotus. The film glides through Richard’s Fifth Avenue apartment admiring the views, climbing a citadel built on skulduggery. As a feature debut for Benjamin Caron, a veteran of high-end TV such as The Crown and Andor, it slinks through its assignment with the gleaming panache of a salesperson at Tiffany’s.

The endgame could be… sharper. There’s an elaborate hoax that’s too easy to suss out – even for us, and we’re not the seasoned con artists on the receiving end. At this point, the film’s own confidence seems to falter just a fraction. Then again, the chinks in these crooks’ cynical armour are what give it texture, a mottling of human desperation. Instead of smug gotchas, it traffics in mistakes.

15 cert, 116 min. On Apple TV from Friday

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Published by anthonyhayble

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