/ 24 April 2023

One Movie Two Takes: Sharper

Sharper Photo 0101
Big, bad Apple: Briana Middleton and Justice Smith star as Sandra and Tom in ‘Sharper’. Photo: Apple TV

What happens when two studios like AppleTV and A24 come together? You get a glamorous thriller on the art of deception, drenched in dim mood lighting. Sharper is a tale of duplicity, double-crossing and con artists who play with billionaires and … indie bookshops.

After watching it, you are left with the wise words, “If you’re going to steal, steal a lot.”

Madeline (Julianne Moore), is a schmoozer of billionaires, which makes her natural habitat the world of New York’s wealthy elite. She works her magic on billionaire Richard Gibbs (John Lithgow), aiming to inherit his $2.6 billion fortune.

This tiny world of billionaires is mirrored by the better-known side of the city — young people trying to make it professionally, academically, romantically. It’s here we meet Tom (Justice Smith), the bibliophile in a hole-in-the-wall bookshop. Tom meets Sandra (Briana Middleton), a PhD student in black feminist studies, and their supposed picture-perfect romance begins but flips into a chase for a massive debt.

Sharper reminds us that everyone has a backstory, with complex characters and layers, which formed them. It’s intriguing but not suspenseful. It presents chapters for each of its protagonists (who are also antagonists), giving a back-and-forth ping-pong game of character development with lots of twists.

Through the characters we are reminded not everyone presents the full picture of their identities, and even if you aren’t intentionally swindling someone, you can still be deceptive this way.

Back to the billionaires. Madeleine is not the only con after Richard’s money — so is Max (Sebastian Stan), who is also not who he seems. He pulls in the seemingly innocent Sandra to learn the tricks of the trade. Basically, every character in Sharper is a liar. 

There’s something juicy about a film that explores the lives of billionaires who strut around with Hermès Birkin bags and conjure up schemes beyond the wildest imaginings of everyday folk. Yet, audiences are reminded of how far-fetched their lifestyles are.

Sharper’s moody aesthetic balances its crime-thriller aspect. Consider it a modern take on films such as American Hustle and Catch Me If You Can.

In Sharper, money is both a goal and a weapon, but charm, charisma and chemistry are the superpowers harnessed to keep people on their toes. It might be hard to decide who to root for because every character has trickster qualities but, when peeled back, show a glimmer of innocence. — Kimberley Schoeman 

What Benjamin Caron (The Crown) gives us on Sharper is absolutely sensational. Every scene is a thrill — although predictable at times (which is not a bad thing here) — and there is something amazing about seeing each character unfold so seamlessly.

We are introduced to Tom (Justice Smith), a coy young man who works at a bookshop. One day, a student called Sandra (Briana Middleton) walks in to purchase a book and there is instant chemistry. The relationship ends as quickly as it starts, with Sandra selling Tom a sob story about a troubled brother who is mixed up with the wrong people. Trusting Tom offers to help her. 

As the movie progresses, we soon realise all the characters are connected somehow. Sandra is connected to Max (Sebastian Stan) who teaches her con tricks. Madeline (Julianne Moore) marries Tom’s billionaire father who becomes the “mark”. 

With most movies about cons featuring many scenes with guns blazing, car crashes and weird casinosetups, I get why this movie might seem a little bland. 

However, Sharper does not need those kinds of scenes to be enjoyable and thrilling. The nonchalance portrayed by the characters throughout the movie is perfect for this type of storyline.

The lack of creativity on the movie scene lately might be the reason I loved Sharper. It is not often you get a movie that has you sitting at the edge of your seat (even though I watched the whole thing in bed). 

The overload of betrayals were thrilling to watch, even though sometimes predictable. The film loses steam now and then but picks it up with a change of scene that gets you engaged again. 

I have to say that Apple TV+ did not give the cleanest production with Sharper. It was not done well but I suppose you could look the other way because the actors give stellar performances. 

Moore is, of course, in a league of her own but newcomer Middleton transforms successfully from a drugged-up girl with bad manners and a vile mouth to a put-together, well-spoken young lady who fits perfectly into New York’s high society. 

Sharper gives us many lessons, but one that stood out for me was to take what people tell you about themselves with a pinch of salt. People will do anything to get what they want. If the Thabo Bester saga has demonstrated anything it is that, if you are not careful, you could become the mark in someone’s big con. — Lesego Chepape