‘Sharper’: A pleasurable if predictable puzzle box


(3 stars)

The con-game thriller is a cerebral movie genre, as opposed to an emotional or psychological one. Not to minimize its pleasures, but as with the heist flick, the fun typically lies in the design and construction of the elaborate puzzle box at its center: How will the sting be delivered, and to whom?

In the case of “Sharper,” we’re treated to puzzle boxes within puzzle boxes, each one delivered in sequential chapters — titled after the film’s main characters, Tom, Sandra, Max and Madeline — and unpacked, initially in reverse chronological order, with satisfying, if somewhat predictable, style and suspense. If you’re seeking substance, look elsewhere.

Who are these characters? Tom (Justice Smith) is the owner of a quaintly impractical Manhattan book shop; Sandra (Briana Middleton) is a grad student, bookworm and his customer turned girlfriend; Max (Sebastian Stan) is a con man, or sharper; and Madeline (Julianne Moore) is his mother and the soon-to-be-trophy-wife of Richard (John Lithgow), a billionaire who drops the film’s mantra, disguised as a piece of financial advice to Max, after a small, incidental con goes awry:

“All that work for $1,000? If you’re going to steal, steal a lot.” It’s advice that is soon put into practice.

By the way, the descriptions above pertain to the characters as we initially encounter them. But their true identities, relationships and motives slip, slide, morph and migrate every which way as the action unspools.

Richard’s philosophy — another version of “be good, or be good at it” — is the ethos of a film in which nearly everyone is on the grift, at least eventually. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good guys and bad guys here, despite these words of cynical wisdom from Max: “You can’t cheat an honest man. That’s why we never feel sorry for the mark.” Among the marks and sharpers — and sometimes one person is both — there are heroes and villains. It just takes awhile to identify who’s who.

The cast, unsurprisingly, is the film’s ace up its sleeve, especially Moore and Middleton, each of whom is riveting to watch, in different ways, as their characters negotiate hairpin plot turns and twists of fate. Each actress is at her best when manipulating the men in the film, or each other.

There may be, as Max says, no honest character in this story, co-written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (creators of the uncategorizable “Comrade Detective” comedy series on Prime Video) and capably directed by Benjamin Caron, a veteran of British TV making his feature debut. But there is honor among these thieves and cheats — at least one or two of them — and the film’s gratification comes from figuring out where it’s been hidden.

R. At the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Bryant Street and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema; available Feb. 17 on Apple TV Plus. Contains strong language throughout and some sexual references. 116 minutes.

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