In “Tom,” the first titled chapter of Benjamin Caron’s new psychological thriller “Sharper,” we meet Tom (Justice Smith), owner of a small bookstore near the Columbia University campus in Manhattan. Tom falls for Columbia student Sandra (Briana Middleton, in the film’s best performance), who pops into the store one day for a book. The two quickly bond over their love for reading. Everything feels like a set-up for a romantic journey of two shy booklovers; yet we believe there must be something brewing between the surface. The romance is almost too “clean,” if you will.
The plot thickens
In our second chapter, “Sandra,” we move backward in time to learn how Sandra became a con artist. She was a parolee with a drug habit and a history of criminal activity. “Saved” from this world by a grifter named Max (Sebastian Stan), Sandra is employed to fall in love with Tom in an effort to obtain a large sum of money from Tom’s billionaire father Richard (John Lithgow).
Then in “Max,” we pop back in time a little further to learn how Max became a grifter. You see, his mother Madeline (Julianne Moore) fell for – and subsequently married – Richard to cause him to part with some of his vast fortune. And so it goes. The more characters we meet, the more we realize not one of them is sympathetic. Even Richard, whose wealth is the impetus for Brian Gatewood’s and Alessandro Tanaka’s original screenplay, doesn’t come off as affectionate or sensitive. He’s so in love with his affluence that he comes across as someone who might “need” to be extorted – at least as a plot device.
Derivative of Mamet
“Sharper” is derivative of many a confidence game motion picture. The best this genre has ever known is playwright and director David Mamet, whose “House of Games” (1987) and “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997) were masterpieces. But remember in “House of Games” how we felt sincere sorrow for the Lindsay Crouse character once we realized she had been conned? And in “The Spanish Prisoner,” remember how we rooted for Campbell Scott not to be taken as his life became increasingly entwined in a labyrinth plot to steal engineering secrets?
Unfortunately, there’s no such love in “Sharper,” as all the primary characters play against one another in increasingly complex confidence games. Why was “The Sting” a best picture Oscar winner? In large part, because we loved the characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Yes, we knew they were up to no good, but we enjoyed the thrill of watching them pull it off. That personal connection to any single character is acutely missing from “Sharper.”
In addition, David Mamet’s characters never fall in love (or pretended to fall in love) as part of their con games. Mamet’s writing is frankly too smart to rely on this narrative technique. Gaining the confidence of a target through devotion and affection is a cheap way to write these characters. Mamet’s protagonists operate at a higher level – and that’s frankly what I expect here.
Furthermore, David Mamet has a way with dialogue that heightens the tension. His characters’ short, choppy sentences often knifed through the casual viewer with a sense of urgency that is absent here. Mamet’s characters’ very speech left us guessing not only their motives, but their very next moves. I’m not saying “Sharper” is predictable. It isn’t. But it simply isn’t all that interesting.
Until the very end. Once we start gathering our coats and empty popcorn bags to make a beeline for the theatre exit, Caron hits us with a surprise ending that almost saves “Sharper.” Without giving it away, it’s right out of the “Dangerous Liaisons” playbook.
Hard to recommend
So, do I recommend “Sharper” or not? That’s a tough call. There’s a lot to like about it, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to greater fare, which covers similar ground. Much as last year’s journalism thriller “She Said” simply didn’t measure up to “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men,” “Sharper” is nowhere near the equal of similar films. If you like “Sharper” (or even if you don’t), treat yourself to any number of films written and/or directed by David Mamet. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. And you’ll forget all about “Sharper.”
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.