February 9, 2023
Writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka pray that you haven't done two things before you watch their new film Sharper on Apple TV+. The first is that you snubbed the marketing team and didn't watch the trailer, as it immediately spoils the film’s chronological order, deflating almost all of the tension that the writing duo and director Benjamin Caron have tried to instill. The second thing is that you’ve never watched a movie with a twist (sorry Shyamalan), as experiencing just one in your lifetime will over-prepare you for what happens here.
"If you're going to steal, steal a lot," says billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow) to Max (Sebastian Stan) after he tries to shake him down for a mere $1,000 through a fake police bust. Little does Richard know that Max has been taking his advice the whole time, as this charade was only one step in a larger plan to swindle unfathomable amounts of money. Part of the act is Madeline (Julianne Moore) cosplaying as Max's doting mother and a new romantic partner for Richard. Also in the mix is Richard's only son, the book-loving and hopeless romantic Tom (Justice Smith), and too-good-to-be-true new girl Sandra (Brianna Middleton), who's been brought into the fold and taught every trick of the trade by Max. Nothing is what it seems to be on the surface with these five characters, with double, triple, and quadruple-crosses being a personal and professional hazard.
Sharper may mark the feature directorial debut of Caron, but he's been a veteran of the stage by helming several Shakespeare projects for Kenneth Branagh's theater company and received two Emmy nominations for his directorial work on The Crown. Star Wars fans also appreciate him for his handling of the season finale of Andor last year. Because of this resume, it's no surprise that Sharper often packs the emotional punch of a stage production and looks as pristine as a prestige drama. A Quiet Place cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen shoots in crisp low-lighting, with Caron intimately blocking the actors within the luxurious sets as if he was still with Branagh's company.
As shown in the opening title card, the term sharper is defined as "a cheat, one who lives by his/her wits." It is perpetually bizarre that these characters seem to have world-class offensive skills with their wits, but are horrendous at defense, allowing themselves to be caught off guard despite us, the audience, being able to spot everything from a mile away. Coincidences and instances of exclaiming "Oh come on!" run rampant, almost as if Gatewood and Tanaka kept writing themselves into a corner and were too far in to start again from scratch. The transparency of the twists doesn't do favors for the nonlinear structure, broken down into chapters told from a new perspective. Much of the whole puzzle has already been revealed by the final chapter, making it pretty easy to guess what the complete picture will be.
Still, the actors are having fun with the chewy material. Between last year's Pam & Tommy and Fresh, Stan continues his streak of trashy scumbags. Moore, continuing her relationship with Apple after the quickly forgotten Lisey's Story television adaptation, gets to play both confident and vulnerable, which she unsurprisingly does with ease. But the real standout has to be Smith, delivering his best performance to date. Granted, the bar for that has been set quite low due to his work on the Jurassic World sequels and Detective Pikachu, but I also can't fully blame him for having to deal with the awful material provided to him.
If you're a person who doesn't like for a movie (or its characters) to be smarter than you, then Sharper will be right up your alley. It’s mindless fun delivered with some class, occasionally teetering towards parody due to its overly serious ambitions.