What Pairs Perfectly with Popcorn? Fleecing the Rich, Of Course.

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The Enduring Appeal of Conning the RichALISON COHEN ROSA

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“I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘con,’ says Benjamin Caron, “but maybe ‘deception’ is the defining feature of the film.”

The director is talking about his new feature Sharper (streaming now on Apple TV+), and he isn’t wrong. The slick, impressive new film follows a group of New York City grifters as they deceive a series of exceedingly rich marks and, eventually, one another sometimes in an effort to make a buck (or a billion) and others just for the thrill of the game.

It all begins when mild-mannered bookstore owner Tom (Justice Smith) meets a beguiling customer, Brianna Middleton’s Sandra, and thrillingly expands to expose a series of plots and schemes—as well as characters played by Sebastian Stan, Julianne Moore, and John Lithgow, among others—set on luring some of Manhattan’s richest and most powerful people into parting with sizable chunks of their fortunes.

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Sebastian Stan and Brianna Middleton in Sharper, a new film (streaming now on Apple TV+) that follows a group of con artists who prey on New York City’s one percent. Courtesy Apple TV+

“I have a sort of mischievous personality, and there was something I found slightly appealing about the mischievous qualities of these characters,” says Caron, whose previous projects have included directing and producing The Crown. “When I read this script, I thought it was smart and funny, and I loved how it dealt with trust and betrayal and had all of these twists and turns.”

At its heart, Sharper seems to take great pleasure in the nuts and bolts of how the rich can be separated from their money. Scams are given the star treatment, and the ways in which their perpetrators deploy them are spelled out, often letting the audience know how they themselves were fooled in the process.

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“Close up magic is one of my favorites,” Caron explains. “I used to work as a waiter, and I’d do close-up magic just to get extra tips. There’s something about the art of misdirection, which is happening in this film in so many ways. I’m constantly trying to keep your attention in one place while doing something elsewhere; you forget the kind of film you’re watching and don’t have time to guess what will happen next. I love the simplicity of confidence games, and the idea that if you are convincing enough you can get anyone to believe your story.”

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Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton, Julianne Moore, Benjamin Caron, and Justice Smith at the London premiere of Sharper in February 2023. David M. Benett - Getty Images

Throughout Sharper, nothing is quite what it seems. Relationships, life stories, and entire identities are obscured or even invented entirely for the sake of a game, and the film’s characters—even those we’ve come to, of course, trust—are never quite what they seem. It’s something pop-culture aficionados have seen plenty of times before, but Caron was willing to bet would remain thrilling.

“Audiences love stories about people who come from nowhere and reinvent themselves in unexpected, and sometimes deceptive, ways,” he says. “I find that idea of transformation seductive, and the thought of escaping one reality with all of its difficulties and entering into another, improved set of circumstances is the realm of fairytales. Cinderella, Eliza Doolittle, Vivian in Pretty Woman–we’re conditioned to respond to stories of reinvention.”

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Julianne Moore, John Lithgow, and Sebastian Stan star in Sharper, a stylish new thriller streaming now on Apple TV+.Courtesy Apple TV+

It might be easy to chalk some of the characters’ actions up to an eat-the-rich mentality, but that isn’t the message Caron is sending overall. “I don’t think anyone deserves having money taken from them,” he says. “I remember being 17 years old when I came to London on a trip. We were staying in a cheap hotel near Piccadilly Circus, and for a kid from the West Midlands coming to London was daunting. We had to go to a theater, and I remember getting in a cab to make the 45-minute journey. When we came out of the theater, my friends said they’d just walk back, that it was just five minutes away. The guy in the cab could have told me I could walk, but that was my first experience of being properly conned. When you’re impressionable and trying to act like you know more than you do, people can take advantage of that.”

And when it came to setting his film, there was nowhere to his mind that could have been more perfect than Manhattan. “When I think about why this movie is set in New York City, I think about how the city operates at the sharp end of the American dream,” he explains. “It’s a transactional city, and the difference between the rich and the poor is evident everywhere. It’s a place that attracts grifters, and our characters could only exist there. I know when I go to New York, I always come back poorer.”

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