In HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, based on Diana B. Henriques’s book of the same name, it’s starkly evident that director Barry Levinson wishes to evade the usual glamorizing of Wall Street con artists, in this case Bernard Madoff (Robert De Niro), who orchestrated the largest Ponzi scheme of all time. We’re not permitted to disreputably enjoy Madoff’s scamming, as his rise from humble origins as a penny stock trader to a legendary launderer of billions of investment dollars is almost entirely elided. The film primarily alternates between 2008, when Madoff was turned into the F.B.I. and S.E.C. by his sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), and 2010, when Henriques (playing herself) interviewed Madoff for The New York Times.
The Wizard of Lies has no concrete present tense, then, as the meat of the Madoff saga has occurred outside its timeline—an ambitiously lean framework that suggests a possibility for a character study free of the tethers of exposition. It’s possible to forge an economic parable without a conventional rise-and-fall motor, as Welcome to New York proved. A fictional riff on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Abel Ferrara’s film also reveled in a privileged life in crisis, omitting most biographical textures and replacing them with an intensely evocative atmosphere of parasitic dread. Welcome to New York’s rarefied biosphere was both erotic and obscene, tapping into our mixed feelings of disgust and admiration for infrastructure-plundering criminals.
The film doesn’t display this sort of poetry of habitation though, in which a setting is created so precisely that it provides much of a narrative’s detail and critique by almost subliminal insinuation. Levinson was once a joyous crafter of intimate character studies, but he’s never been a distinctive formalist, often fixating on people talking in cinematically unremarkable ways. He removes the suspense motor from Madoff’s story without replacing it with anything, mounting a dry, talky, and moralizing procedural that abounds in the sort of impersonally polished competency typical of HBO prestige biopics.
The Wizard of Lies is composed of one interminably prolonged act, set in 2008, in which viewers wait for Madoff to be incarcerated after confessing to massive fraud and a variety of other audacious crimes. The characters never come to life, particularly Madoff, who’s played by De Niro with an editorializing charmless-ness that fails to dramatize why people would trust this man. De Niro likens Madoff to another of his many anal-retentive control freaks, producing a portraiture that’s especially reminiscent of Casino’s Ace Rothstein, and so there’s little sense of surprise or discovery here. As Madoff’s wife, Ruth, Michelle Pfeiffer has a few moving moments, such as her reaction to a rejection at a hair salon, but there’s little to distinguish this character from any number of clueless crime-film housewives.
There are other sporadic scenes in which actors are allowed to perform behavioral bits that attempt to suggest a living-and-breathing drama rather than a reenactment of a Wikipedia page, such as an amusingly crass riff by Madoff’s chief financial officer, Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria), likening women to sports cars, that could have come out of Levinson’s Diner or Tin Men. Late in the film, we finally see Madoff scamming an investor at a party, which Levinson intercuts with the drumming of a band so as to artificially ramp up the tension, undercutting the insinuating texture of Madoff’s ploy, which was to affect an air of exclusivity that kept investors coming despite a comical lack of substantiation of returns. It’s one of the best moments in the film, but Levinson can’t simply let it breathe and allow the actors to develop rapport.
This TV drama’s leaden direction sinks the vague and over-explicit script, yielding pat and overwrought tediousness. We see little of Madoff’s life in or outside of the office, except for shrill sketches of self-entitled greed that overplay his ironic resentment of the wealthy, which are peppered with soundbites about Ponzi schemes and Madoff’s convenient role as the face of all that the under-class resents of the upper echelon, notably after the financial crash of 2008. The Wizard of Lies doesn’t refute that armchair outrage, which probably isn’t possible or desirable anyway, but it’s so pointedly lacking in empathetic imagination that one wonders why Levinson made the film, which bears less of a resemblance to art than a book report.