Directed by: Benjamin Caron
Distributed by: Apple TV+
Written by Anna Harrison
“Sharper” opens like a romcom with the world’s tenderest meet-cute: Sandra (Brianna Middleton) meets Tom (Justice Smith) when she pops into his bookstore looking for Zora Neale Hurston, and sparks fly between the two. Sandra is studying for her PhD, focusing on black women’s contributions to literature, and Tom quickly becomes enraptured, though the two’s family lives could stand to be better; they quote “Anna Karenina” knowingly to each other. Only the definition provided to us at the beginning of the movie (sharper, n.: one who lives by their wits) clues us in that something is amiss.
When Sandra’s brother asks her for money she doesn’t have, Tom is more than happy to provide—it would be his wealthy father’s money, anyway, and he doesn’t care for his father. But Sandra disappears after meeting up with her brother’s tormentors, and so the story reveals its first of many, many layers. We are introduced to Max (Sebastian Stan), the son of New York socialite Madeline (Julianne Moore) who is the type of suave Kendall Roy thinks he is but never quite can be, and who dislikes Madeline’s new flame, billionaire Richard (John Lithgow). All the performers bring their A-game (though I have never been fond of Smith’s acting, he is pretty decent here), with Stan and Middleton in particular being standouts. The world of New York City’s richest feels sleek, sinuous, and immensely fragile, like it will fall apart at the slightest misstep—and it does.
The film is stacked precariously upon layers and layers of twists and turns, so much so that to reveal any more plot would ruin one surprise or another, though there are so many that eventually the surprises stop being surprises and become rote. Most of them work, however, helped in large part by Benjamin Caron’s sharp directorial eye; his first feature shows a knack for both style and substance, even if Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script becomes too convoluted for its own good.
The film is divided into different acts, each named after a character, and as each goes on, the novelty begins to wear off; there are flashbacks, alternative points of view, scam after scam after scam. Caron’s directing and the performances he coaxes out of his actors, as well as Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s stellar cinematography and Clint Mansell’s score promise a slicker movie than the one we get, though “Sharper” still manages to maintain its edge, if only barely at times.
The saddest thing, though, is that ten years ago, this could have made bank: it’s a more than solid directorial debut and a good showcase for a talented, well-known cast. But the year is 2023, and so “Sharper” gets dumped unceremoniously on Apple TV+ with nary a whiff of promotion; when I pulled it up on their app to give it a watch, I had to scroll quite a ways before finding it, even only a week or so after its release. What have we done to deserve this? Let’s just hope Caron’s future projects get the attention they deserve.
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