How do you make a genre film without devolving into redundancy? Sharper (2021), my first Apple TV+ movie, tries to obscure its genre for the early acts, but the closer it moves toward the end the more familiar things become. First it poses as a romantic drama, then a neo-noir, but eventually the film reveals itself to be a con artist movie. Perhaps Sharper attempts to con the audience much like the characters try to con one another. Unfortunately, pretty much anyone will see the ace sticking out of this conman’s sleeve.
Not much can be said about the plot without spoiling things. These types of movies really depend on unexpected twists and turns, and even the most broad summary of the film would give away layers that must be unraveled. The characters, on the other hand, seem to be directly lifted from the classic conman movie, The Grifters (1990). Details are changed but the broad archetypes remain the same.
Sharper leans heavily into style and mysterious circumstances. This is a great combination for such a film, but for it to work the plot must at some point rise to its adornments. The path of the plot seems obvious, but the tautness and precision of everything will convince you that the final twist will function as a final puzzle piece that makes sense of everything. It does not. It ends exactly as you would expect once all the primary characters are introduced. Sharper doesn’t avoid predictability so much as delays it by taking so long to set the table.
This is my second film in a row—after Knock at the Cabin—that has let me down by presenting a great setup only to lack a resolution worthy of its concept. In both cases the Captain Obvious Reveal ruined movies that appeared to have potential. Not every movie has to have a twist ending, but when the filmmakers go to such great lengths to set one up, it can’t be blindingly obvious.
In both Sharper and Knock at the Cabin, it felt like the writers wrote themselves into a corner. The writers committed to an elevator pitch and decided to worry about pesky details like climaxes and conclusions when they got there. The premises could have led to a place much more interesting and much less predictable, but the writers lacked the imagination to arrive at those places. Like in gymnastics, no matter how impressive the routine, you have to stick the landing.
Like all con artist movies, it tells us practically nothing about the human condition and that’s okay. The romanticized con artists in movies are a fictional invention. These “sharpers” do not resemble real people and they could not. A gracious interpretation of the film would be that it attempts to demystify the fictional con artist by exposing the immorality of their practice. But that’s not very revelatory and it misses the point.
We don’t romanticize the fictional con artist for their transgressive nature, we romanticize the fictional con artist for their wit, style, and high-stake improvisation. It’s the same reason audiences love McGyver and undercover cops and spies. A true demystification would demonstrate that most real con artists are not particularly bright—they just have the ability to shamelessly lie. Like George Santos. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an excellent example of roundly mocking the fictional con artist while adhering to the conventions of the genre.
The disappointing end and thematic vapidity to Sharper don’t entirely ruin the film. The majority of the runtime is a fun ride shot with style and the individual scenes are strong. The actors do a fantastic job and the pacing is excellent. But, like its titular profession, Sharper pretends to be more than it is.