[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
There’s nothing more fun or glamorous than scamming rich people.
Sharper hangs its hat on that argument, and director Benjamin Caron makes a persuasive case. The film centers on a group of loosely-connected individuals close to New York City wealth and privilege. Madeline (Julianne Moore) is a socialite who’s fallen in love with Richard (John Lithgow), an aging business tycoon with a strained relationship with his bookshop-owning son Tom (Justice Smith). Tom falls in love with Sandra (Briana Middleton), a Ph.D. student who stumbles upon his bookstore looking for a Zora Neale Hurston book. And then there’s Max (Sebastian Stan), a reckless loner on the margins, who is more cunning than he wants others to realize.
In truth, those descriptions don’t mean much. Sharper spends a large chunk of runtime remixing what we think about its characters and their relationships with each other. The fact that someone is getting scammed isn’t entirely relevant; the film is pretty clear on who the victim will ultimately be. The film’s byzantine puzzle lies in the scam’s underlying circumstances and the interpersonal connections that support it. Caron structures the film as vignettes focused on each character, gradually unspooling their backstories and what led them down this particular path. He gets real mileage out of this approach, stacking up genuine surprises and fun with the reveal of each crazy character twist.
Sharper can be ridiculous, shamelessly so. (How could it not be when you have Sebastian Stan unironically urinating into a decanter?) The film is best when it swims in the sleaze of the wealthy and those who cheat them. The vignettes that form the second act are filled with absurd cruelties that perfectly capture money’s intoxicating and toxifying allure. Caron further bolsters these moments by drenching them in a dark, glossy sheen and slipping Clint Mansell’s gold-plated score underneath. Through his camera, everything is expensive and seductive, with hints of danger twinkling at the edges. Despite the air of solemnity, Sharper doesn’t take itself too seriously. Caron mostly gets his kicks from dialing up the messy antics, delivering them with a wink that acknowledges that (mostly) everyone is terrible, and embracing the splintered, occasionally silly darkness.
Sharper trips itself up when it forgets how much fun it can be. The film loses steam in the third act with a lot of wheel-spinning and worrying about what people may or may not know. The final stretch takes a turn toward melodrama that is technically in line, but spiritually at odds, with what came before. The ending attempts a fun course-correct, but it’s a bit too convenient and tidy for a film that thrives in the muck. The third act also retroactively highlights a few of the script’s character development weaknesses, particularly Tom’s mental health and Max’s motivations at the end. (Justice Smith does a great job with an almost thankless role.) The film lacks the space and depth to tackle the moral ambiguities and tricky racial politics it grazes. The attempts zap away some of the film’s chaotic, sexy energy.
It’s handy that Sharper‘s ensemble cast holds a hefty reserve. Julianne Moore has a blast toying with preconceived notions about a traditional Julianne Moore role. She takes Madeline seriously but keenly understands what her film needs. Moore delivers, modulating between chewing luxurious scenery and seeking Madeline’s long-dormant humanity. Briana Middleton is chameleonic as Sandra, shifting personas and auras with remarkable ease without losing the character’s fragility buried beneath the swapped wardrobes. Sebastian Stan continues his hot streak of morally compromised, wildly compelling men with Max. As he did with Fresh and Pam & Tommy, Stan commits wholeheartedly to his character’s unhinged physical shenanigans (the urinating, hotel room trashing, and another ridiculous dance sequence). Meanwhile, the micro-shifts in his eyes and inscrutable face suggest an intriguing inner conflict. The sexual chemistry he shares with Middleton and Moore is palpable, and the film sadly doesn’t capitalize on it.
We hit peak “eat the rich” saturation years ago, but Sharper still finds fun to have within the genre. When the cast and crew let loose, the film is a sleek survey of terrible people doing terrible things to terribly rich people. It isn’t afraid to sneer at itself and doesn’t waste much time pontificating about what’s right on the tin. There’s way too much dirty sexy money to steal, messy relationships to untangle, and late-night bar floors to dance on.