Few people have been as villainized in modern times than Bernie Madoff. His Ponzi scheme took over $50 billion from Americans, leaving many without their life savings. It’s a tragic story that helped contribute to a financial crisis that rocked the country. It stands to reason that few would want to see this man humanized. Barry Levinson’s “Wizard of Lies” does, in fact, try to restore humanity to the Madoff family. However, it does this mainly for the members of the Madoff family and to understand how this hated man coped with the national ire he received. It’s a film that heads down an interesting path with incredibly talented people, only to fail to go the extra mile in exploring these characters.
The events are told from the perspective of Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro) in prison as he talks to journalist Diana Henriques, played by herself. The film focuses not so much on the events of that led Bernie to defraud so many people. Instead, most of the time examines how the aftermath of the Ponzi scheme affects various members of the Madoff family. Bernie’s wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) finds herself questioning her fifty one year marriage and ability to live on her own. His sons – Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) – struggle to maintain the lives of their family in the face of media scrutiny. In the end, Bernie Madoff not only defrauded an entire nation, but also demolished the public and private lives of all those he loved.
Wall Street has been a potent source for filmmakers as of late. “The Wolf of Wall Street” rolled around in the luxury of crooks. “The Big Short” found enormous energy and spunk around the rage surrounding the 2008 collapse. “The Wizard of Lies” is not quite sure what take it wants to express. Director Barry Levinson seems most interested in doing a character study of Bernie and his family. Its in these moments the film works best. One particularly memorable sequence involves Bernie confronted by those lives he ruined during a failed dual suicide attempt with Ruth. Unfortunately, there are half hearted attempts to show Bernie before the fall and explain the nuts and bolts as to how he rationalized his actions.
Robert De Niro has taken few risks as an actor since the new millennium. Watching him personify Bernie Madoff is a rare glimpse at the commitment the actor routinely showed in his earlier work. Many of the lazy affectations he has coasted on for years are gone. Instead, he seems to relish the opportunity to disappear into a real life character. It’s hard fro one to not see De Niro initially. But gradually, as the film moves on, it becomes easier to admire the relatively quiet performance, save for a few obligatory scenes of grandstanding. De Niro has an interesting take on his rationalization of the events that transpired, which keeps the film compelling throughout.
In case you have missed the signs that this is Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback year, she lobs a Jersey-accented sign right into your home. The renowned actress is utterly great as Ruth Madoff. It could be so easy to play a brash housewife that doesn’t know how to behave on her own. However, as Ruth flails about for something to cling to, we see a calculating woman searching for a next act. One truly believes she knew nothing about the atrocities her husband was committing. However, her trust in this one man caused her to never look closer at where her money was coming from.
There are plenty of interesting shades of the film coming from the supporting performances. Alessandro Nivola is utterly heartbroken as Mark Madoff. The golden child finds his world obliterated when the man he looked up to turned out to be a crook. Meanwhile, Andrew (Nathan Darrow) had never been the family favorite, and his anger following the fallout is the closest to mirroring that of the audiences. In other areas of the film Hank Azaria displays plenty of bravado and flop sweat as Frank Dipascali, a compatriot in the company trying to wash his hands of the scandal he contributed to.
The film is both less rote and disposable than one might assume, but misses the mark at being a really interesting take on the subject. Levinson does his best work in 20 years since “Wag the Dog.” However, its not enough of a return to form to really dig deep into the material that is presented. With so many inventive and creative films telling the story of financial wrongdoing, the seams so prevalent in “TV movies” show a bit more. Still, the cast makes it a rather involving and entertaining take on a true American villain.
“The Wizard of Lies” is now available on HBO Go or HBO Now.