' ' Cinema Romantico: Sharper

Monday, April 17, 2023


In a perfect movie world, or at least a movie world where the movie middle class was just better, I would have no need to ever think of James Foley’s mostly middling 2003 “Confidence” again. But nope, there I was watching Benjamin Caron’s Apple TV-released neo-noir “Sharper” and all I could find myself thinking about was “Confidence,” or more accurately, one sequence from “Confidence,” when Rachel Weisz and her various con men cohorts (including Edward Burns) run a confidence game on poor John Carroll Lynch. When Weisz flirtatiously giggles and looks at him out of the corner of her eye, you feel it, you feel his temperature unwittingly rising (you feel your temperature rising), you feel the meanness of the world. I kept thinking of it because even if the broad strokes of the sequence were familiar, hoary even, they were painted with some real flair, some joy, a level of emotional conning, which is how the esteemed Roger Ebert put it in writing about David Mamet’s “House of Games.” That last one, that’s the movie you sense “Sharper” wanting to be in its elaborate structure of con games and double crosses, and while there is a level of emotional conning going on, it is conveyed with no emotion, which is where it really goes wrong, a movie in which all these real people moving across the screen feel more like the motion captured CGI extras in “Titanic.”

It begins with a meet cute between bookshop owner Tom (Justice Smith) and graduate student Sandra (Briana Middleton). Even if you’re unaware of “Sharper’s” twist-oriented nature going in, the assortment of character details in this opening passage conspicuously come across less like behavior than narrative details you inherently sense Add Up to Something. Indeed, broken up into chapters, this vignette gives way to another vignette about Sandra and a grifter, Max (Sebastian Stan), she encounters, and that vignette gives way to another one about Max and his grifting paramour, Madeleine (Julianne Moore), and so forth, this series of storylines eventually looping back around to the beginning and converging. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s unsurprising. And I don’t necessarily mean that it’s unsurprising in so much as you can guess what’s coming, though you sort of can, but that fails to paint between the lines of all these puzzle pieces with any real flourish. “House of Games” had its twisty structure, but it also had Mamet’s dialogue, infusing it with a staccato style. “Sharper” has no style, none at all, its sterile posh locations epitomizing its own lack of soul. 

The characters backed into a corner don’t feel desperate just as the characters screwed over emit no real sense of fury just as the characters who get off on running cons effuse no devious charge just as the characters pining for another emit no romantic charge. Though at one point Max and Madeleine put Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” on the jukebox and sidle up to one another on a makeshift dance floor, they don’t even seem like people who have sex. The message, meanwhile, about people engaging in these nefarious schemes for nothing more than a little bit of money is not only cribbed right from “Fargo,” it is so limply delivered it hardly comes through, a low-resolution carbon copy straight off the Canon fax/phone/copier from Page 13 of the November 1988 Sharper Image Catalog

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