“Do you think I’m a sociopath?” Bernie Madoff asks near the end of The Wizard of Lies. The question hangs in the air, unanswered, and with the way Madoff asks it you get the impression he doesn’t know the answer himself. He’s incarcerated, serving a maximum sentence of 150 years in prison for defrauding thousands of people of billions of dollars in the largest financial fraud case in U.S. history. Does he have regrets? Well, he certainly regrets being in prison. And he seems to regret the devastating fallout that affected his family in the aftermath. But given the chance, would he commit his crimes again? Watching him you get the sense that he probably would.
Madoff is played here by Robert De Niro, who gets to remind us that he still can be a great actor — one of the best, in fact — when he’s not slumming it playing Dirty Grandpas. De Niro plays the financial genius turned conman as almost thuggish; a brash, vulgar, would-be tough guy who just happens to have a lot of money. Adapted from the book by Diana B. Henriques (who, in a nice piece of stunt casting, plays herself here interviewing Madoff in prison), director Barry Levinson’s The Wizard of Lies isn’t so much a biopic of Madoff as it is a feature-length Law & Order episode, kicking off right as Madoff’s about to be busted for his crimes and then working backwards to put together the pieces of how it came to this.
While Madoff is the one who ends up in jail, the people who are truly ruined by his actions are his family. His wife Ruth (a weary, angry Michelle Pfeiffer), finds herself ostracized by both the public at large and her own children. Madoff’s two sons (Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow), who both worked for Madoff, become immediate suspects, and even after they’re cleared the stigma remains — how much did they know about their father’s crimes? They must’ve known something, right? Nivola’s character, Mark Madoff, becomes completely unmoored by the accusations, spiraling out of control and disturbing his wife (Kristen Connolly) in the process.
Levinson tries to keep the proceedings cinematic with some punchy visual touches: one scene, where Madoff works a crowded party full of potential investors, is punctuated with close-ups of the house band drummer’s snare drum, constantly pounding away; another sequence finds Madoff in a trippy dream scenario after he attempts suicide by taking a plethora of sleeping pills. Mostly, though, you can’t really shake the Made-For-TV vibe that The Wizard of Lies throws off. In an era where straight to TV films no longer have to be stigmatized, there’s an unfortunate staginess to The Wizard of Lies that drags it down, and the film’s 132 minute runtime doesn’t do it any favors.
Still, there is a distinct thrill in watching De Niro bully his way through this performance. There are little touches, such as when Madoff forces his son to order a lobster at a dinner only to have it immediately sent back, that speak volumes in character development. Here is a man oblivious to anyone else’s wants — he has to be in control of every situation, even the usually benign task of ordering food. Moments like this elevate The Wizard of Lies; it’s just too bad there aren’t enough of them.