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Review: Con artists accumulate in the slinky 'Sharper'

Almost invariably, we root for the con artist.

Seldom does the ingenuity and cleverness of a good hustler, card sharp or con man not win us over. They are, of course, walking metaphors for the movies. Through finesse and daring, they pull the wool over our eyes while emptying our pockets.

They're also great roles for actors, our best liars, to showcase their powers of slight-of-hand seduction and subtle transformation. “Sharper,” a fitfully delicious pile of deceptions and double-crosses, is made with evident appreciation for the genre. It opens with a definition of its title — “one who lives by their wits” — and “Sharper,” too, skates by nimbly enough by coasting on its cast's smarts.

“Sharper,” which opens in theaters Friday and lands Feb. 17 on Apple TV+, is a slinky, slick caper that finds ways to distort expectations while unfolding a puzzle-box narrative. Before its lesser third act, “Sharper” — propelled especially by the performances of newcomer Briana Middleton and the more veteran Sebastian Stan — manages to juggle its plot twists with panache.

It opens with a seemingly sweet note of romance. Sandra (Middleton) breezes into a used bookshop on the Lower East Side to pick up a copy of Zora Neale Hurston's “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” She tells the guy behind the counter — Tom (Justice Smith) — that she's getting her PhD in Black feminist studies. The scene could be a meet cute for a bookish romcom. But given that opening title card, we're on guard for the scam. She's forgotten money — is that the play? A free book? They go on a date and later return to the store to hold in their hands a first edition of “Jane Eyre.” Maybe that's the goal? A fiendish scheme to swipe rare Charlotte Brontës? But as a character says later in “Sharper,” if you're going to steal, steal big.

“Sharper,” structured as a series of vignettes each titled after a particular character, unspools as a series of ever-expanding cons. First, there is Sandra, in need of $350,000 to rescue her drug addict brother from his debtors. Once that plays out, the second chapter rewinds to Sandra's past, and her chance encounter with a skilled grifter, Max (Stan). He takes Sandra under his wing to school on the art of deception. His system starts, kind of wonderfully, with reading the newspaper: “So you can lie about anything.” And he's single-minded about the work.

“I don't watch movies,” Max says. “They're a waste of time.”

First off, ouch. But this is also an early hint, in Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka's layered screenplay, that the grifters of “Sharper” — unlike, say, Paul Newman of “The Sting” or Leonardo DiCaprio of “Catch Me if You Can” — are a more sober variety of fabulist, less a stand-in for the make-believe of movies than a concept to question and interrogate.

As “Sharper,” smoothly helmed by British TV director Benjamin Caron, continues to widen, it brings in more characters and backstories, including a New York socialite (Julianne Moore, also a producer) who's dating a billionaire widower (John Lithgow). But the progression begins to work against the film. As 'Sharper" turns increasingly melodramatic, we're well-conditioned by then to look for the con, and see it coming a long ways out. The streetwise characters — especially the appealingly rigorous Max, who seems like he walked in from a Paul Schrader film or a David Mamet noir — also wouldn't be so easily duped by the late plot maneuvers. After a promising start, “Sharper” grows duller.

But there's plenty here to savor. Middleton, who had a small role in George Clooney's “The Tender Bar,” brings such a shape-shifting radiance to the film that when she's not present, the movie sags even as its star power increases. And Stan, an actor I've not previously had a strong sense of, has never been so arresting on screen. His cool nonchalance gives “Sharper” a bracing edge. The scenes that pair Middleton and Stan together are its most potent. Plus, who can resist a con that includes, to pose as a PhD student, cramming great quotes of literature? Oh, the riches that can be unlocked by “Call me Ishmael.”

“Sharper," an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language throughout and some sexual references. Running time: 116 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP