Movie Review: HBO’s ‘The Wizard of Lies’

HBO is well known for producing excellent and dramatic shows and movies. The Wizard of Lies, a film adaptation of journalist Diana B. Henriques’ (played by herself) report on ponzi scheme artist Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro), was released May 20. While it certainly is dramatic, it doesn’t excel.

The movie’s debut was just days before a report detailing the aftermath of the scandal was released on May 23. It stated that eight and a half years later, RCB Fund Services LLC is still working to “finalize reviews and recommendations for 63,580 claims covering $67.8 billion in reported losses.” No money has been paid to the victims of the ponzi scheme out so far.

As hard as The Wizard of Lies tries to leverage Robert De Niro’s A+ turn as Madoff and the clever use of cinematography, it still falls flat in a world filled with turbulent politics, reports of violence and mass shootings, and devastating natural disasters.

The movie opens with Diana B. Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times, talking with Madoff. The interview is the basis for the rest of the movie. As Henriques questions Madoff, we see lengthy clips of the experiences he had leading up to, and during, the 2008 financial meltdown.

The format was one of the more clever parts of the movie. It allowed the story to come together piece by piece, even as some important details happen out of order, and provides a truthful interpretation of Madoff’s experiences.

Throughout the film, De Niro’s acting is spot on. He is known for taking time with a role, a trait that comes through brilliantly in this movie. Without his dedication, The Wizard of Lies would have fallen flat — honestly, how interesting is a man who does everything with a straight face, apart from a few breaks for outrage?

De Niro’s strong acting, however, makes his castmates seem dry as cardboard. Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark Madoff (Alessandro Nivola) are still and awkward characters, possibly due to the fact they couldn’t talk to the characters they were portraying since both sons have passed away. Regardless, the duo felt dull, only coming out of their shell for the moments when they adamantly protested that they should know more about what was going on in the business.

Ruth Madoff (Michelle Pfeiffer) also felt distant from the character. Most of her lines came across as something she had to say and not something she truly felt. While portraying someone who was deeply in love with Madoff, Pfeiffer seems to miss the mark.

The one exception to the bland acting was the series of scenes leading up to Mark’s suicide. We finally get to see Nivola come into his full acting abilities as Mark slowly descends, and finally gives into, his depression. He does distraught well.

We also get to see Pfeiffer at her best when Ruth learns about her son’s death. It’s a break from the stone-cold woman she is the entire film, showing an emotion other than indifference or anger.

As if to make up for the acting, the movie does an excellent job with its cinematography and choice of music. The two strongest scenes in it are solidly in the middle. The first is shortly after Bernie and Ruth attempt to overdose on Ambien, which sends Bernie on a drug trip. The scene is grounded in his guilt about hurting people, most notably Elie Wiesel, and hurting his family, as well as the stress of being surrounded by media and suspicion. This scene works well because of the rich, dark colors used throughout, especially the deep red and orange tones that appear in each segment and the way the camera tilts to literally show how out-of-sorts the character is.

The other scene that works well is the brief description of the 2008 stock market crash. Real news clips are combined with scenes of bombs going off and overly-dramatic Hollywood car crashes. With this extreme comparison, the scene captures the panic of a nation, and of the world, during the financial crisis.

The music is also a wonderful addition to the film. Rich, low tones and sharp, staccato notes combine with light, toy-box like music to create a sense of unease and drama that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Focusing on certain sounds, such as drum beats or a single note played on a violin, work wonders for allowing the audience inside the rather expressionless Madoff.

But the music does most of the heavy lifting in creating tension that otherwise wasn’t there. As hard as the movie tried to make Bernie Madoff sympathetic and make the viewer question whether he was crazy or a sociopath, it couldn’t undo the contempt for Madoff or that damage done to his reputation.

The film follows several years of Madoff’s life, and tries to humanize him for his love for his family and strong, almost instinctive drive to protect them. What it fails to do is course-correct for things that detract from this view. For example, there are scenes where Madoff yells at his eight-year-old granddaughter at dinner for asking about his work, and another where he happily joins into a conversation with his co-worker, Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria), and compares “pussy” to different types of cars.

Even though the movie clearly wanted to follow his story truthfully, in order to allow viewers to decide how they felt about the man behind the fraud, it seems impossible for anyone to be willing to let the devastation he caused go — at least 17 billion of the defrauded money came from individual investors and four people, including his own son Mark, committed suicide due to the tremendous losses.

The movie tries to lean on the concept of mental instability, establishing several times that Bernie Madoff is not entirely together. There are several times in the interview where he repeats that he’s not sure if keeping the secret to himself for so many years made him crazy. He is also unable to admit that even though he wanted to protect his family from the fraud, he put them at great risk. The last line in the movie has De Niro asking Henriques, “do you think I’m a sociopath?”

The Wizard of Lies tries to be a deep, psychologically cutting telling of Bernie Madoff’s choices and experiences, but it comes across as a failed history lesson for college freshmen interested in going into finance but don’t want to go through the effort of reading a textbook. The movie underestimated dislike and distrust for Madoff and didn’t work hard enough to question a man that most people have already created an unfavorable, unchangeable opinion of.

This film is only worth the watch if you are impeccably invested in the financial history of America, and/or the psychology of white-collar criminals.

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