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“Sharper” reviewed

Benjamin Caron’s Sharper, now in limited theatrical release and streaming on Apple TV+ next week, allows one to imagine what Julianne Moore and John Lithgow could have done with an ‘80s David Mamet screenplay like “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner.” It’s one of those narrative jigsaw puzzles that feels like it went from theatrical feature to streaming series sometime in the mid-‘10s. And so there’s a bit of a jolt of enjoyment at just watching it unfold, moving back and forth through various cons until the final one lands on the table. The problem is that the Mamet brand of tough-talking puzzle movie is harder to pull off than it looks, and writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka just don’t have the gift of dialogue needed to elevate this thriller beyond its foundation. Mamet’s best films used dialogue as a weapon as his characters alternately withheld and revealed like Ricky Jay doing a magic trick. “Sharper” clearly wants to mimic that aesthetic, but the whole thing is only good enough as a diversion.

Justice Smith plays Tom, a soft-spoken young man who works at an old bookstore, selling first editions of famous novels. One night, a beautiful young woman named Sandra (relative newcomer Briana Middleton, more than holding her own opposite some legends) enters Tom’s shop, and the two have instant chemistry. They flirt and eventually go to dinner, jumping into a quick relationship. After only a couple of weeks, Sandra is meeting Tom’s friends, and the L-word is even thrown around. Then she reveals she has a brother who is in trouble. He needs some cash, an insane amount of cash. After the danger for Sandra’s brother intensifies, Tom agrees to get the funds from his extremely wealthy father, Richard (John Lithgow). Of course, Sandra disappears with the money.

Don’t worry. That’s not a major spoiler, only the first of several con games and revelations revealed through Gatewood and Tanaka’s vignette structure, one that focuses on one character at a time, revealing the role they play in a script that sometimes stretches credulity as it flashes back and sometimes even sideways. The second vignette jumps back to reveal how Sandy became Sandra under the tutelage of a slimy con artist named Max (Sebastian Stan), who just happens to have a connection to Madeline (Julianne Moore), the new wife of, you guessed it, Richard.