Thursday, February 09, 2023


Nobody ever made much money from a bookstore, especially one with a literary bent. It is therefore a little confusing when a film about con artists and grifters initially spends so much time with Tom, a mild-mannered bookstore owner. However, we eventually learn he has a complicated backstory. So does everyone else in Benjamin Caron’s Sharper, which opens in theaters tomorrow, before hitting Apple TV+ a week later.

Tom was leading a quiet life until Sandra came into his store, looking for a suitable copy of Zora Neale Hurston. As their relationship progresses, they seem perfect together—maybe a little too perfect. Eventually, we will flashback to Max, a grifter (or sharper) preparing for a big score. He often works with his somewhat older lover Madeline, but in the scam we see unfolding, he pretends to be her son. That definitely gives the film a similar vibe to Stephen Frears’
The Grifters, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing.

It is hard to reveal much more than that without getting spoilery. As fans of films in the tradition of
The Sting would hope and expect, there are a lot of cons within cons going on. Frankly, it is pretty easy to guess the final third act twist, but it provides the payback viewers will be hoping for, so it is still fun to see how it is accomplished.

Julianne Moore is terrific as Madeline. She is some kind of femme fatale. According to press reports,
Sharper also represents the first time in fifteen years she has held a firearm on-screen, so lets all welcome her back to the entertainment industry. Opposite her, Sebastian Stan does some of his best work yet as the spectacularly snake-like Max. Justice Smith provides a grounded counterpoint as the naive and impractical Tom, while the great John Lithgow is as compulsively watchable as ever, playing billionaire Richard Hobbes (obviously, he must be one of the marks, since he is a billionaire).

rewards sharp eyes, because it features some notable faces in small to fleeting roles. You can hear for a good while and briefly see jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanying vocalist Samara Joy McLendon during a tony party scene. Distinguished stage actor David Pittu (whose many credits include John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile) portrays Hobbes’ attorney (who will get to rack up those billable hours). Plus, Michael Judson Berry (who can be seen in the latest season of Worst Cooks in America) also appears briefly as an unshaven Bergdorf retail employee.

Sharper is a bit darker than a lot of “big con” movies, it is still a lot of fun. Remember, The Sting had a bit of an edge too—that is why they went after Robert Shaw in the first place. Screenwriters Brian Gatewood & Alessandro Tanaka are maybe not quite as successful misdirecting viewers, but Moore’s diva-scammer turn more than compensates. Recommended for fans of con game thrillers, Sharper opens tomorrow (2/10) at the Regal Union Square and streams on Apple TV+ next Friday (2/17).