“The Wizard of Lies” is constructed to mimic Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme: an expertly orchestrated con with a significant payday. But the film, based on Diana Henriques’ book, one ups its inspiration by actually pulling off the scam; first by suckering the audience into investing in a masterful liar, then carefully planting seeds of doubt, and ultimately sneaking up and crushing its shareholders with a devastating final act.
In other words, Barry Levinson’s adaptation is a more complex and accomplished work than we’ve seen from many so-called biopics, as well as HBO Films’ best entry since “Behind the Candelabra.” In fact, in many ways, it’s the opposite of Steven Soderbergh’s gaudy and enticing “final” film. Rather than delivering too much of a good thing, “The Wizard of Lies” is an exercise in the power of restraint — especially from its lead, Robert De Niro.
Starting with Madoff in prison and working its way back in flashback, Levinson’s film uses Henrique herself as an unidentified reporter whose interviews with Madoff frame his story. We cut first to his arrest and slowly shift back and forth through his memories to find out why he organized the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.
Early on, Madoff is painted as a sympathetic figure. When he turns himself in, he goes calmly and quietly. He immediately admits to wrongdoing, tries to protect his family from harm, and complies with every order. Even when put through the “embarrassment” of removing his shoelaces before heading to jail, Madoff does not complain; nor when his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, rocking a mesmerizing Queens accent) has to watch him be humiliated, nor that he, of all people, is being treated like a common thug.
Of course, such a portrait should set off alarm bells in viewers at home. How many times can we be asked to look at a monster and only see his humanity? Too often is peeking behind the doors of white privilege treated as pure entertainment — including at HBO, thanks to “Sex and the City 2” and “Entourage” — and “The Wizard of Lies” goes on long enough to make you think that might be all it has to offer. You can’t help but let your heart go out to Madoff when his sons refuse to sign him out on bail. “They know it doesn’t cost anything?” Bernie asks, before he resigns himself to the fact that his family is angrier than he expected.
But then the story takes a turn. Without spoiling the last sympathetic scene before Levinson & Co. begin pulling back the curtain, we’re first exposed to Bernie’s well-hidden sociopathy through his relationship with the Madoff sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola, who worked with De Niro in “American Hustle”) and Andrew (“House of Cards” star Nathan Darrow). Kept in a separate business from their father but still working under him, both complain about a lack of transparency between branches. There are disagreements among the family that start as polite discussions and evolve into intense shouting matches — but not linearly. Levinson makes it clear the anger was always there, but wisely saves the most intense barbs for the end, when Bernie’s charming shroud is lifted.
That the film adamantly portrays Mark, Andrew, and Ruth as being kept in the dark to Bernie’s massive fraud may or may not be accurate, but the dramatic thrust of this conviction is used to make the father look worse more than the sons appear innocent. If there’s a flaw in this side of the story it’s that Levinson can get a little heavy-handed in visually illustrating their ignorance. After Bernie is placed under house arrest, Ruth actually complains about being left “in the dark”… while sitting in a blueish-black dining room as Bernie paces around a brightly lit kitchen. The symbolism is groan-inducing, and the mother and sons’ muted color scheme dominates every scene taking place after Madoff’s confession.
But it’s hard to hold a bit of bluntness against a film with such patience. By the time “The Wizard of Lies” exposes its wizard as a fearsome man projecting a kind aura, the impact is as powerful as De Niro’s performance is restrained. With the flick of an eye, he alludes to two hours of monstrous accusations. So resolute was Madoff in keeping his guard up, in cultivating a likable image and a trustworthy exterior, De Niro knows better than to expose too much in his performance. Structuring the film as an overt con while consistently utilizing De Niro’s covert performance produces a cumulatively forceful finale.
The last shot functions as a declarative statement — one that feels well-earned, even after such diabolical scheming. “The Wizard of Lies” isn’t interested in gray areas. It wants you to see what the victims saw, and from a similarly pained perspective.
“The Wizard of Lies” premieres Saturday, May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO.