The Wizard of Lies *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Barry Levinson.
Written by: Sam Levinson & Samuel Baum & John Burnham Schwartz based on the book by Diana Henriques.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Bernard Madoff), Michelle Pfeiffer (Ruth Madoff), Alessandro Nivola (Mark Madoff), Hank Azaria (Frank DiPascali), Nathan Darrow (Andrew Madoff), Sydney Gayle (Emily Madoff), Lily Rabe (Catherine Hooper), Kristen Connolly (Stephanie Madoff), Kathrine Narducci (Eleanor Squillari), Steve Coulter (Martin London), Michael Kostroff (Peter Madoff).
In the film, Robert DeNiro plays Madoff – the well-respected financial guru, who it turned out had been running the largest Ponzi scheme Wall Street had ever seen, scamming billions of dollars out of his clients, none of whom ever had a clue. I do wish that the film had perhaps dived a little more into how Madoff did it, but I also understand I’m probably in the minority who wanted more details about financial transactions, so perhaps director Barry Levinson and company were right to basically stick to the family story. This is not a film about Madoff’s victims – it’s about how his crimes effected those closest to him, who the film takes at face value in that it never questions their own story that they didn’t know what was going on.
DeNiro is undeniably one of the greatest actors of all time, but also undeniably, hasn’t always seemed that interested in doing great work in the past, oh, two decades or so – with the occasional great performance (Stone, Silver Linings Playbook or his great directorial effort The Good Shepherd) being lost in a sea of mediocrity. Here, he is quite good, and makes an interesting choice with Madoff – making him into a blank faced, mostly bland psychopath. He doesn’t raise his voice very often, he isn’t giving “Greed is Good” speeches like Gordon Gekko, or going insane like Jordan Belfort – he just calmly, rationally steals all your money. You cannot even say he’s doing it for his family, because he screws up their lives as well – he says he did it all himself, and they knew nothing, but as we see in flashbacks, even when his sons wanted to leave his company, strike out on their own, he berates them into staying – essentially sealing their fate. This is not a deep dive by DeNiro – who keeps his understanding of Madoff on a surface level, but he implies that the surface level is all there is to Madoff.
That does leave the emotional heavy lifting in the film to the other characters. As his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent – she isn’t a typical trophy wife (for one thing, she’s been with Bernie since they were poor teenagers), but she clearly didn’t want to know anything about what Bernie did at work or why – her priority was her family – and the money – and when she loses it all, she has nothing left. Pfeiffer is so good here, it really makes you wish she’d work more often (this is the first time I’ve seen her since 2013). Also quite good is Alessandro Nivola as their younger son – the one who admires their father more than anything, who takes all of his crap, and is destroyed by the revelations. Nathan Darrow isn’t as effective as the older Madoff son – mainly because he has a more reserved role.
The Wizard of Lies was directed by Barry Levinson – the Oscar winning filmmaker of Rain Man, and other fine films of the 1980s and 1990s (my personal favorite is probably the Iraq War satire Wag the Dog with DeNiro from 1997). Levinson has always been a smart, middle of the road filmmaker – and there’s no difference here. The Wizard of Lies knows precisely what it is, and what it wants to do – and it delivers. It’s a little strange to me that HBO continues to churn these films out, with seemingly no real ambition to grow, but they know what they’re doing, and they do it well.