“The Wizard of Lies” digs deep into Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, while providing a less-illuminating peek under its subject’s skin. The coup of casting Robert De Niro as Madoff showers prestige on this HBO film, which ultimately provides only slightly better dramatic returns than ABC’s so-so 2016 miniseries starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Adapted from the book by Diana B. Henriques (who appears briefly as herself), the movie begins as Madoff’s scam — and the lavish lifestyle it financed — is on the verge of unraveling. The feds soon move in on him and his stunned family, including the grown sons (Alessandro Nivola, Nathan Darrow) who worked for him, and his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer).
“He looks relieved,” one of the agents says after Madoff’s arrest.
Director Barry Levinson takes his time, though — and really, a bit too much of it — before getting past the initial frenzy of law-enforcement activity, zeroing in on Madoff’s ill-gotten gains and the rarefied air he occupied.
The best scenes illustrate the latter — from Madoff lieutenant Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) crudely holding forth about women by comparing them to cars to Madoff acting uninterested in an investor’s money, until the mark practically begs him to accept hundreds of millions of dollars, roughly three times the figure he originally proposed.
The movie as a whole, however, feels somewhat disjointed, despite attempts to contextualize it with clips from news and latenight programs, where Madoff was a hot topic of conversation. (In one meta sequence, Bernie sits watching coverage of himself, looking weary and slightly forlorn.)
Beyond the significant toll exacted upon those in Madoff’s orbit, “Wizard of Lies'” psychological thrust has to do with the nature of evil, and the question of where these crimes rate on the spectrum of villainy. That’s explored in part through Madoff’s prison interviews with Henriques, to whom he acknowledges his transgressions while expressing surprise and even hurt over the way people have characterized him.
Although surrounded by a fine cast, De Niro’s the main draw here, portraying Madoff’s varying shades — able to charm masters of the universe out of millions one moment and callously dismissing his children the next. What the movie can’t penetrate is his hard shell in detailing not just how the scheme worked but what motivated him to begin down this perilous (if highly lucrative) path in the first place.
Not surprisingly, given the tawny auspices of an HBO production that screams “awards bait” from every pore, the trappings of “Wizard of Lies” are, like Madoff’s possessions, designed to impress. The movie, however, doesn’t fare quite as well in getting to the root of his magic act, or how he was able for so long to keep his house of cards standing.
“The Wizard of Lies” airs May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO.