I don't want to overpraise "Sharper," a terrific, twisty thriller now on Apple TV+, since its ending falters and it doesn't exactly rewrite the playbook on what a classic about con artists can be (see "The Sting"). But oh boy does "Sharper" satisfy as sleek, sexy, sophisticated fun.
And that's nothing to sneeze at in a Hollywood that's become so obsessed with comic-book blockbusters that it's largely forgotten how to entertain us with the simple pleasures of style and craft ingeniously dished out by experts.
Set in a Manhattan of haves and have-nots, "Sharper" stars Julianne Moore and Sebastian Stan. But you don't meet them right way. Part of the film's puzzle structure is to keep us off balance as the plot divides itself into chapters named after each of the main characters.
Up first is Tom, a bookstore owner gently acted by Justice Smith (no relation to slap-happy Will Smith). Into his literary mecca ambles shy Sandra (Briana Middleton), a Ph.D. candidate at NYU who is dazzled when Tom shows her a first edition of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."
These two timid bookworms slowly become a thing until Sandra breaks down about her brother who needs to pay off a gambling debt of $350,000 to the mob or else. She's shocked when Tom offers to get the cash from his dad. "He didn't earn it," sasses Tom. "He runs a hedge find."
And so we're off into a head-spinning series of double-crosses. The brother is Max, played by Stan. Tom's Big Daddy is Richard (John Lithgow), a zillionaire who's about to marry Madeline (Moore), who is Max's mother and now stepmom to Tom, who just got swindled.
Got that? No worries. Just go with the flow of this mesmerizer where nothing and no one is what they seem. Debuting feature director Benjamin Caron, who's done astute TV work on "Andor" and "The Crown," mines every shocking turn in the script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka. You may want to see it twice if you don't keep a scorecard.
But even when the script threatens to spill over the edge of improbability, the actors hold you in a tight grip. Middleton is simply sensational as Sandra, taking us on a rollercoaster ride of behavior and motivation that centers the action in ways you won't see coming.
Stan, an Emmy nominee for "Pam and Tommy" and a Marvel staple as Bucky Barnes, most recently in "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," again proves his versatility, making Max a figure of mirth and menace in it less for greed than the thrill of the dangerous game.
And Moore, an Oscar winner for "Still Alice," turns Madeline into one of her boldest and most erotically adventurous roles since "Boogie Nights" and "Short Cuts." Her wonderfully wicked performance is right on the money. Here's a born scammer whose treachery is so sweetly done you barely notice when she goes in for the kill.
Though "Sharper" is beautifully shot on film, a relief after the digital cheapness of so much streaming product, the ending disappoints because closure is an illusion for grifters who long ago sacrificed their humanity to stay on the hustle. Be careful before you bite into this sinful temptation -- it's a bonbon spiked with wit and malice.