Movie Review: A Grifter by Any Other Name? “Sharper”

As dark as “The Grifters,” as over-the-top as “The Sting,” “Sharper” is a fresh take on a time-tested genre, a “Who can you trust?” tale from the Land of the Big Con.

No, you’re never wholly sure of who’s grifting whom, sometimes to an eye-rolling degree. Maybe the opening image, of a Rolex watch being re-assembled, is a tad on-the-nose, previewing the profligate riches and the clockwork plot to come.

But an outstanding cast headed by Oscar winner Julianne Moore and fresh faces Justice Smith and Briana Middleton, and lifted by bring-it-all-home reliables Sebastian Stan and John Lithgow, make this a thoroughly entertaining winner about predators who make everybody they meet a loser.

An opening credit defines a “sharper” as “someone who lives by their wits,” and creates expectations for every character and every storyline to follow.

That opening “meet cute” in a bookstore? Is lovely “single and I like it” grad student Sandra (Middleton, of “The Tender Bar”) who she seems to be? Is bookstore manager Tom (Smith of the “Jurassic Worlds” and TV’s “The Get Down”) for real?

We watch their romance unfold and wait for a shoe to drop, that first “problem” that only somebody else’s money can solve. No, that’s not a particularly hard to guess secret. But the clockwork con is more of a vehicle for a series of engrossing character studies which follow.

Sandra’s back story is explored, as is Tom’s. Then we meet Max (Stan). And figure out his connection to “Madeline” (Moore).

All along the way, somebody’s playing somebody else. Someone is being groomed by a predator, someone else given a “make over” as part of a mentoring. Every connection is tenuous but essential to making this Rolex — OK “Fauxlex” — tick over.

It’s not the engineering of this plot or the genre-specific dialogue, cliches like “You can’t treat an honest man” and “We never feel sorry for the mark,” that puts “Sharper” over. It’s a series of crackling scenes, situations that reveal character and the actors who play those characters who manage to sell it.

A “new” parole officer chews on a parolee in a diner on Christmas Eve. A well-heeled customer intervenes. Who is doing the shaking down here, and who should be shaking?

A fake arrest is exposed to help build credibility for a longer con, small scores turn into potential huge ones, and so on.

Benjamin Caron, a director with “Andor” and “The Crown” credits, immerses us in a New York of wealth and grime, sharpers and marks and recruits. He and the screenwriters take care to never turn quite as dark as “The Grifters,” with no hint of the jauntiness of “The Sting.” This isn’t an instant classic like those two antecedents, but it’s a most respectable account of the lives of the disrespectable.

Stan, just seen in the creepy “Fresh,” has found his handsome-but-sketchy niche, Lithgow brings gravitas and mystery to everything he plays and Moore could be pretty convincing in either guise, as Angelica Huston “Grifter” or predator turned prey.

Our loving young couple, they can’t have lived long enough to be as cynical as these creeps. Or can they?

It’s all good unclean fun until somebody gets hurt, but you know the drill about any medical issue. Make damned sure you get a second opinion.

Rating: R for language throughout and some sexual references.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton, Justice Smith and John Lithgow.

Credits: Directed by Benjamin Caron, scripted by Alessandro Tanaka. An A24 release (coming to Apple TV+)

Running time: 1:56


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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