A24 and AppleTV+ play the long con with an A-List cast and a story with enough twists and turns to keep you watching until the final frame.
DIRECTOR: BENJAMIN CARON/2023
Sharper is the newest A24 title to stream on AppleTV+ and it features the feature film directorial debut of Benjamin Caron (Andor, The Crown, The BBC’s Sherlock). Much like the aforementioned television titles he has directed, this film features episodic chapters focused on the main characters of this long con, filling in the gaps of the hustle as each chapter unfolds. By the end, Sharper delivers an entertaining story, and another solid feature film loaded with an A-list cast for AppleTV+’s streaming service.
Tom (Justice Smith) is a quiet man who keeps himself away from crowds. He is intelligent, and connected to money through his father Richard (John Lithgow), a billionaire businessman, yet he prefers to manage a small bookstore where he can spend his days reading. All of this is interrupted by a customer named Sandra (Briana Middleton) who catches his eye. Having the courage to ask her out for dinner leads to a promising relationship until Tom is pulled into Sandra’s family drama and she eventually disappears. Slowly the layers of this onion of a story are pulled back to reveal the connection between Tom, his father, his father’s fiancee Madeline (Julianne Moore) and her son Max (Sebastian Stan), and how it all is connected to the disappearance of Sandra.
Writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka deliver director Caron a script that allows him to utilize some of the skills he has learned directing the likes of a show such as Sherlock. The need to turn the camera’s eye towards one focus of the story as a means of misdirection from another is used effectively enough to be engaging. With this being a story of a long confidence trick, and less of a mystery to solve through forensics or deductive reasoning, Caron need only keep the story moving and let his talented cast carry the story to build the required suspense.
Sebastian Stan and Julianne Moore bring charisma to their parts and elevate some of the two dimensional aspects of the script to give it much more gravitas. When you throw John Lithgow into the works, it only elevates it further. Justice Smith and Briana Middleton are also solid and demonstrate a very natural and organic chemistry together that spills out into their interactions with the other characters they encounter.
Sharper fails, however, to really explain a plausible enough backstory or motivation to why the perpetrators of this con engage is such shenanigans above the typical “in it for the payoff” endgame. They seem to include and easily dismiss supporting players to their con without any real connective tissue in the script to explain how these characters know each other, aren’t suspicious of each other, etc.. This is in spite of the fact that at multiple times in the story the “con”-ers are “con”-ing each other. Without it causing anyone to turn on another, they just shrug it off and work with each other again next time like its all water under the bridge. Neither side really is affected by any of it. Instead, the scene changes and the story pushes these relationships towards the next set piece without much fallout.
While this aspect of the characters is an obvious weakness of the script, there are strong foundations to the cons themselves and how they play out in multiple layers of the narrative. With each twist in the story, the reveal is effective because of the plausibility and genuineness to how the characters are responding to the events as they play out. That said, nothing in this script creates enough tension to pull you in where you are truly worried for these characters…just enough that you are entertained enough to keep watching.
Sharper won’t catch the box office on fire or drive increased subscriptions to AppleTV+, but it does serve a solidly entertaining story from the first frame to the last, which bolsters Apple’s continued level of content depth it has been producing. The cast is top-notch and elevate any shortcomings of the script to bring a story of a compelling confidence trick that you do want to see played out until its final concluding frame.