The Wizard of Lies (2017)

Directed by Barry Levinson

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There are two types of Robert De Niro performances, in my mind.  After years of playing hardened characters (Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, The Kind of Comedy, gangsters in Goodfellas and Casino), older De Niro has played characters known for their comedy or even charm (Meet the ParentsDirty GrandpaThe Intern).  These movies, all later in his career, are much worse than his previous films, but as he has aged, the roles he has played have aged too.  In other words, the edge seems to have worn off a little.  In an earlier film like Casino, De Niro’s edge is just a touch of who the character really is.  When he does something despicable, it hints at a real twisted complex within.  But in later films like Meet the Parents and Analyze That, De Niro’s edge is just enough to recall earlier characters he played.  It’s like a shortcut to show that he has all this other stuff going on inside his head, but that other stuff we only know about if we’ve seen those earlier movies like Casino.

I guess what I’m getting at is that De Niro’s performance as Bernie Madoff is a callback to these earlier performances.  His version of Madoff has more in common with Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle than any character he’s played in the last twenty or so years.

The Wizard of Lies feels at times a little melodramatic, but that feeling has less to do with the severity of Madoff’s crime and more to do with how much the audience already knows going in.  Madoff, of course, was the orchestrator of a decades-long ponzi scheme in which he lost $50 Billion of his investors’ money.  In a movie like this, based on such recent real life events, it’s always fascinating to see where the movie decides to go and how far.

There is the familiar structure of the main character giving an interview (same as in JackieBlow and the narration in The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, etc.), and the narrative jumps around in time a little, though never more than a few years at a time.  Because we know what Madoff did, his capture and subsequent arrest happens pretty early in the movie.  The real drama and the stakes lie in how his family deals with this crime and whether Bernie Madoff can actually take responsibility for what he did (in a Walter White kind of way).

And that’s where the melodrama kicks in.  First, a complaint about movies/shows that feature the rise and fall of a drug kingpin is that they rarely depict the horrors those characters cause.  For example, Walter White experiences a true rise and fall in Breaking Bad, but the drama is about him and his goals and never about him accepting his role in ruining a number of lives with the meth he cooks.  The Wizard of Lies could have done the same thing, but there are a couple sequences which show the true horror of what he did.  In black and white we see a few of his victims as they learn that they have lost everything, and in one case a man kills himself as a result.  We then see portraits of all of his victims as the camera pulls back like you’re looking at the nameless victims of a terrorist attack.  The point is clear: Bernie Madoff is a monster, and though he never cut off a girl’s head (Madoff hates the comparison between him and Ted Bundy), his crimes were devastating and far reaching.

The movie, then, does a great job establishing the tone and making it clear that there is no room for feelings of sympathy for Madoff, if you were somehow inclined to feel that way.  There is nothing likable or redeeming about the character.  The people you’re meant to care for are his wife and sons, in terms of the main characters.  Each of those three characters (his family) were ignorant of Madoff’s crimes, and whether or not they should have known, it’s made entirely clear that they did not know.

The melodrama is in the family dynamics.  One of Madoff’s sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola), commits suicide, driven there by the accusations thrown his way and his own frustrations with his father coupled with a feeling that there’s no way out of this.  Mark completely disowns his father before his suicide, and while this decision is striking (considering I didn’t realize this happened or I just forgot), the movie only shows us Mark’s motivation in one long sequence that plays like something out of a psychological thriller.  Mark holes himself up in his apartment, and we see him spiral out of control over just a few minutes, and then… he’s gone.  It’s still impactful, but the movie seems to take a break from everything and decide to show his downfall right then and there, rather than to slowly push him to the edge throughout the course of the movie.

I will say that the scene after this, in which a family friend discovers his body, is very chilling and well done.

The movie ends with Madoff giving an interview in which, despite claiming to accept that he is completely at fault, he still skirts responsibility regarding his protection of his family.  Madoff claims to have done everything in his power to protect his wife and kids, but as we have seen, they were anything but protected.  We see his wife and sons vilified in the press, in the streets and driven past wits end.  And yet there you have Bernie Madoff, insisting he did everything he could to protect them.  The interviewer points out the holes in his logic, saying that if something had happened to Madoff before getting caught, his sons would have been responsible for his crimes.  Madoff asks her if she think she’s a sociopath, and though we never hear her answer, we already know what to think.

This movie is very well made and captures the tone and the horror of this story very well.  De Niro gives a great performance as Madoff, and the long take of him at the end of the movie, in which he seemingly continues to deny the severity of his crime, feels like the end of Raging Bull with La Motta continuing to play the victim card all the way until the end.  Like La Motta and Bickle, De Niro’s Madoff doesn’t realize how bad he is.

We see Madoff act as a monster throughout the movie, sometimes in overt ways like when he grabs a woman’s ass or chides a caterer and smashes a plate on the ground to make an unimportant point, but his worst crimes are in the moments when he simply avoids looking at himself in the mirror.  Madoff, in one scene, claims that his ‘worst crime’ is trying to make people happy, which is a clear lie, and even the interviewer knows it.  Madoff is never much of a family man or a friendly guy.  He puts the blame on the people who trusted him with their money, calling them greedy, and in other scenes we see him lose his temper at people who won’t give him more money to invest as he tries desperately to cover up his own mistakes by adding millions of dollars (of his investors’ money) into the sinking hole in the ground.  You’re either with Madoff (and thus a greedy moron in his eyes) or you’re against him and thus the enemy.

In one sequence in the middle of the movie, Madoff goes around desperately looking for hundreds of millions of dollars from people he knows, edited to the tune of a nearby Jazz drummer playing in the background.  This scene, while impressive on its own and straight out of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, feels so out of sync with the rest of the movie.  It’s similar to the scene of Mark losing his mind before committing suicide, and while on their own each of these scenes works well, they both feel disconnected tonally within this movie.

Much of this movie feels like just another tv movie.  There is occasionally bad acting and forced conflict (like when Madoff gets into a fight over dinner with his 8 year old granddaughter…) that feels completely out of left field, and then there are scenes where it feels like Director Barry Levinson decided to slow down and really dig into the material.  Some parts of the movie are rushed through and others are allowed to simmer.

By the end of the movie this story feels a little underwhelming.  Maybe that’s because it never really surprises you or even tries to.  The lasting impression we’re left with is that Bernie Madoff is a monster, but we knew that going in.  Maybe there was the possibility that Madoff was going to be given some redeeming qualities, but even if you thought that might be the case, it was clear early on that he was a monster, and then we just have another hour of that.

So I have to wonder what the point of this movie was?  Again, De Niro was great, and much of the movie was chilling, but it feels more suited to a documentary than a narrative movie.  The sequence I mentioned earlier, with the black and white photographs of the victims and an account of how those victims suffered, feels like it was pulled out of a documentary on this subject.  Going from that to a scene of Madoff’s wife getting turned away from her hair stylist feels like a drop in the stakes.  In one scene we see a guy cut his wrists to kill himself, and in the other we see Michelle Pfeiffer get turned away by Pierre, the only man in New York who knows what to do with her hair.

Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine basically handles the character of Madoff’s wife in a haunting, occasionally funny way.  Cate Blanchett plays the titular character who moves from New York to San Francisco to live with her sister following her husband’s (Alec Baldwin) arrest for orchestrating something much like Madoff’s ponzi scheme.

In The Wizard of Lies, Ruth Madoff, while we understand her frustrations, doesn’t have a whole lot to do.  As Madoff’s son Andrew says in a lecture later in the movie, he never told his story because he knew he (and his family) wasn’t a sympathetic character.  He, his son and his mom, despite their present pain, all lived like kings for years off of money their father had swindled.  And he’s right.  While they still have a side of the story to tell, it matters much less than that of the people Bernie Madoff ruined.

This movie tries to dig into their pain, but it always feels a little forced because we see it right after trying to grapple the horror faced by the real victims.  The Wizard of Lies even feels a little manipulative and dirty.  Because both Mark and Andrew have since died (Andrew died in 2014 from Lymphoma), it feels like this movie, while showing them as somewhat sympathetic characters, is taking advantage of their story.  Mark’s suicide is very real, and something he spiraled into because he had lost all hope, but this movie tries to depict that spiral over the span of a few minutes, like he’s just another character in a Hollywood thriller.  But he was a real person.  Even though the movie makes it clear that he didn’t know what was going on, I can’t help but feel about this movie the way Mark himself felt about those articles and internet comments he read online that accused he and his brother of participating in the fraud.  This movie, like many biopics and real life stories, feels like it was seen as just another opportunity to make a movie that will make some money.

De Niro is great, and much of the movie is deftly made, but I still don’t think it should have been made in the first place.  I learned very little about this story (really only that both of Madoff’s sons have died) that I didn’t already know, and I still can’t tell what the point of this is.  That said, I still think it would make a great subject for a documentary, maybe something like The Jinx about Robert Durst.

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