Sharper is full of slick surfaces, never shinier than in the posh Manhattan apartment where we first meet Madeline, grinning girlfriend to a billionaire. She's played by Julianne Moore, which is sort of a giveaway. Moore has a face for glamour, but glamour tends to make her characters mournful, manic, or sick — sometimes all three. Madeline's toothy smile and stately posture are bound to crack, and what will happen when they do?
Madeline introduces herself as the mother of a junkie (Sebastian Stan) who arrives at a party her corporate beau (John Lithgow) is throwing. Something's off. To reveal what would be to spoil one of Sharper's twists, though you'll probably see it coming. The Apple TV+ thriller spends its roughly two-hour running time mapping out a web of deceit that courses through skyscrapers, bookstores, dive bars, and vacant parking lots where even con artists get conned. Everything is stylish, well-plotted, and soulless. If a Julianne Moore heel turn doesn't ignite much electricity, you know a movie's done messed up.
Sharper is a film for our times, the times being an expensive morass of inequity. Hollywood's ongoing eat-the-rich kick has indicted fine dining (The Menu), luxury cruises (Triangle of Sadness), and tech tycoons (Glass Onion), finding blunt humor in one-upping big shots. Those moves bungled their finales — look to South Korea's Parasite for the most trenchant class commentary in recent memory — but at least they were amusing and stuffed with memorable characters. This, frankly, isn't. Everyone is fleecing everyone, but no one is intriguing enough for it to mean much.
Our journey to Madeline's soirée starts at a downtown boutique where a self-proclaimed Ph.D. student (Briana Middleton) goes looking for Their Eyes Were Watching God in hardback. She charms the handsome owner, Tom (Justice Smith), who invites Middleton's bookish Sandra to dinner, pursues a whirlwind romance, and quickly agrees to hand over $350,000 from his father's hedge fund so she can help her troubled brother. Big mistake. Tom and Sandra's connections to Madeline and her smug son are soon revealed, and from there, a bunch of rich pills (or pills wanting to be rich) mastermind their way to more cash and more impunity.
Sharper is the first feature from Benjamin Caron, a TV veteran whose credits include Andor, The Crown, and Skins. The workmanlike script, written by Superstore collaborators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, flattens Caron's slick direction, turning characters into chess pieces in a game that's not clever enough to overcome their bland personalities. Early on, when Tom lovingly gives Sandra a duffel bag of dough, the scene frames them among imposing Midtown high-rises in which capital never stops flowing. It's a striking image, humanity juxtaposed against callous concrete. But when everybody turns out to be as cold as those buildings, including the ostensible hero, the movie itself should probably try to generate some kind of spark.
As the plot unspools, its web becomes more and more tangled. Sharper is divided into chapters meant to illuminate each participant's role in the crisscrossing scheme, but once the structure is clear, the fun of the pizzle dwindles. Supporting characters who seemed inessential turn out to be fundamental in ways that are less twisty and more whiplash-y, and the most obvious target — Lithgow's fat cat, who milks NYPD connections like only a white aristocrat can — is utterly flavorless. All the building blocks of a taut neo-noir are present, and Caron seems capable of making an effective one, but there's only slight satisfaction in finding out who wins and who loses. We don't even get a proper Julianne Moore freakout along the way.
Premieres: Friday, Feb. 10 on Apple TV+
Who's in it: Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, John Lithgow
Who's behind it: Benjamin Caron (director), Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (writers)
For fans of: Twisty noirish thrillers