The Wizard of Lies (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): All Falls Down

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As a guy who only knows vaguely about the Madoff investment scandal, I had some curiosity on HBO film “The Wizard of Lies”, which attempts to present a sobering glimpse into those enormous ramifications of the Madoff investment scandal. Although the movie keeps its distance from its loathsome but fascinating hero and we do not get enough insight on what makes him tick or how he could commit the largest financial fraud in the US history, it is still a darkly engaging drama thanks to a number of solid performances, and I had a fairly good time with it despite several noticeable weak aspects.

The movie, which is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, opens with the prison interview between Barnard L. Madoff (Robert De Niro) and Herniques, who plays herself in the film. As a journalist, Herniques certainly has many questions about Madoff’s scandalous financial crime which resulted in the loss of 64.5 billion dollar, and Madoff looks quite willing to answer her questions.

Their interview mainly revolves around when all fell down for him and others closely associated with him in December 2008, and the early part of the movie shows us how his two sons Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola) belatedly come to know about what their father has been doing behind his back for many years. When their father says there is something he wants to tell them in private, they naturally become worried as fearing for the worst, but the situation turns out to be far worse than they expected. Their father assures them that he will turn himself in to the police once he takes care of everything for his family and others close to him, but, as two high-ranking employees of their father’s investment company, Andrew and Mark must report their father’s crime to authorities for avoiding any possibility of getting arrested along with him, and they eventually agree to do that.

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Not long after they report to the police, two federal agents come to Madoff’s penthouse apartment, and Madoff is quite phlegmatic about this in contrast to his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is still shocked and flabbergasted by what her husband revealed to her and their sons. He is soon taken to a jail in Manhattan, and Ruth becomes quite frustrated when their sons refuse to help her bail out their father. Eventually, Madoff is bailed out on the condition of temporary house arrest, but he and Ruth come to face their growing notoriety in public. He was once one of the most respectable figures in Wall Street, but now he is destined to be remembered as one of the biggest crooks in the US history, and there are thousands of angry people who lose lots of money because of him.

Meanwhile, Andrew and Mark try to distance themselves from their father as much as possible, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out to be virtually impossible for them to dissociate themselves from their father’s crime. Like their parents, they frequently find themselves surrounded by reporters, and this certainly takes a toll on their respective private lives. While Andrew tries to keep going on as usual, Mark becomes more morose and depressed as days go by, and this moody condition of his later leads to a devastating consequence.

The movie also tries to depict how Madoff could swindle the money out of his numerous clients for many years without getting caught, but it does not give us much substantial information on that. For example, we only get a rather superficial depiction of how his criminal activities were done in a certain section of his investment company, and the movie also does not delve much into how these criminal activities of his were not noticed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

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Nevertheless, the movie mostly works as a character study, and it is anchored well by Robert De Niro’s adamantly elusive but undeniably compelling performance. Although this may not be one of his best performances, De Niro reminds us here again that he is still a wonderful actor to watch, and he is especially good when he subtly conveys to us what may be behind his character’s mild but increasingly creepy façade. Although he admits his crime without any hesitation, Madoff maintains his calm, distant attitude in front of the catastrophic consequence of his crime, and we come to wonder whether he actually feels guilty about what he did to his family and many others out there.

The supporting performers surrounding De Niro ably fill their respective roles as required. While Michelle Pfeiffer brings some sympathy and understanding to her character, Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow also give fine supporting performances, and Nivola is particularly heartbreaking as his character is slowly pushed toward the eventual downward spiral. As Madoff’s sleazy right-hand guy, Hank Azaria is relatively under-utilized, and I think the movie could be better if it showed more of how his character operates under Madoff.

Although it is not wholly satisfying, “The Wizard of Lies” remains interesting enough to watch, and director Barry Levinson, who recently directed another HBO film “Paterno” (2018), did a competent job on the whole. I still have some reservation on the movie, but it is surely nice to see De Niro doing something more respectable than “Dirty Grandpa” (2016), and that is enough for recommendation in my trivial opinion.

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