The double and triple-crosses pile up to preposterous heights in “Sharper,” a drama about con artists and the people they’re playing that takes the hoary adage “nothing is as it seems” to contrived extremes. A deep ensemble cast is game for this ambitiously overwrought material, but no amount of committed acting can overcome the movie’s manipulative artifice.
Things begin simply, with a title card introducing the first of the ensemble’s characters, “Tom.” Played by the likable Justice Smith (“Jurassic World: Dominion”), Tom owns a small bookshop in lower Manhattan, where Sandra (Briana Middleton), a graduate college student working on her thesis, comes looking for a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
The couple hit it off and go out on a date, which soon leads to an intimate relationship. They bond over their mutual love of Fellini and their shared fluency in Italian. Then someone comes banging on Sandra’s door, yelling and in despair, but she refuses to let him in. Reluctantly, she tells Tom her brother is a drug addict in debt for $350,000 to dangerous people who will kill him in four days if he doesn’t pay them back.
Tom offers to pay the debt, since he happens to have that exact amount of money in his bank account. Sandra accepts the cash out of desperation. Then she disappears from Tom’s life.
Next comes another title card, “Sandra,” that rewinds to reveal exactly how she ended wandering into Tom’s shop. There was nothing accidental about their encounter: Sandra turns out to be a former drug addict who has been groomed by a confidence man, Max (Sebastian Shaw), to carry out his stings.
Max pays off Sandra’s parole officer with a Rolex (fake, of course) and takes the young woman into his massive apartment. He gets her clean, teaches her Italian, gives her a crash course in world literature and gets her in shape along with a complete makeover — all in the span of what the movie depicts as three or four months, tops.
That’s the first in a long series of preposterous whoppers, nestled inside each other like a Russian doll, that the screenplay for “Sharper,” written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (previous collaborators on the Jonah Hill comedy “The Sitter”) requires you to roll with. But even the most generous suspension of disbelief eventually hits a limit.
Benjamin Caron, the British director best known for his extensive work in television (he shared a 2021 Emmy as one of the producers of the Netflix hit series “The Crown”), shoots the film in a glorious, shimmering widescreen format that’s too glossy and ostentatious for this schematic thriller. Everything is played with an earnest elegance not really warranted by such overcooked material, which probably read well in script form and might have made a better novel.
Julianne Moore (one of the film’s producers, along with her husband Bart Freundlich) gets her own title card as “Madeline,” Max’s mother, a simpering widow who is trying to make her troubled son get along with her absurdly wealthy second husband (John Lithgow). Once again, little of what you see turns out to be the truth: By the time “Sharper” stops with the flashbacks that set up who these people really are and finally starts telling a story, the movie has jerked you around so much that not even the genial Moore, in black-widow-predatory form, is enough to keep the film spinning.
Movies about con artists can be huge entertainments if you can buy into the con being played. If the filmmakers let you in on the game too early, or if they keep changing the rules every 20 minutes, you start feeling like a chump for watching. “Sharper” becomes such a tangle of overlapping storylines and surprise reveals that you assume the movie is building to a big, ingenious payoff worthy of its cast and gloss. The movie turns out to be a sting, alright — one that’s played on the audience. It’s a long-con game that wants to be as intricate as chess but plays out more like Chinese Checkers.