“The Wizard of Lies” boasts a star-studded cast and does a reasonable job of laying out many of the facts that financial journalist Diane B. Henriques expertly assembled in her book of the same name. And yet there’s a listlessness to the project that even the capable cast cannot overcome. Bernard Madoff may have concocted a brilliantly executed Ponzi scheme, but he just doesn’t seem to be all that interesting as a human being.
It’s impossible for any character played by Robert De Niro to lack charisma, and his work is watchable, even if the film’s energy is lacking. And one cannot necessarily fault the actor for playing up the sheer ordinariness of his character: Part of what made Madoff’s long-running scheme work, after all, was the impression he created of an understated genius working quietly in the shadows. Playing herself in the film, Henriques probes and pokes at De Niro’s Madoff in order to find a chink in his calm veneer of self-justification. But she never really does find a gap in his chilly psychological armor, and so the film’s core character ultimately obstructs the movie’s ability to sustain a sense of momentum or discovery.
Beyond the question of whether a viewer wants to spend his or her free time watching a very rich man commit a series of crimes without appearing to experience a moment of true remorse, “Wizard of Lies” also has to contend with the fact that much of the information about Madoff and his crimes has already been extensively documented. For viewers reasonably aware of the contours of the case, there may be a sense of anticlimax surrounding the interrogations and confrontations scattered throughout the film. Many of the tragedies that afflicted the Madoff family — beyond Bernard’s incarceration — could have been affecting, had the film had more time to give his family members a bit of depth and complexity. But for the most part, the Madoff clan is portrayed by very fine actors trying their best to give life and specificity to shallow characters. One hopes that Michelle Pfeiffer’s next TV project — and there should be a next one — takes greater advantage of her many talents.
Even in Henriques’ excellent book, Madoff remains an enigma, a man who can never quite admit the true enormity of his crimes, much less truthfully reckon with the damage they caused. Perhaps the TV movie meant to amplify the idea that the lives of fairly ordinary men can mask the kind of breathtaking narcissism that causes empires to crumble. But the plodding nature of this adaptation merely draws attention to the fact that Madoff was not only an uninteresting person but a cruel one, too.
He bullies his sons, and at one point, makes an 8-year-old grandchild cry. There’s a very good scene in which Madoff’s skill at luring fantastically wealthy investors is shown as revolving around his ability to play hard to get. But beyond that demonstration of his prowess at hunting big game on Wall Street, it’s unclear why anyone in his orbit stays with him. Sure, the money had to be a draw, but even that doesn’t seem like enough. As presented in “Wizard of Lies,” he’s just blandly, calmly villainous and self-absorbed.
Like a number of recent TV movies emanating from HBO, this film is dutiful without being essential. Like “Confirmation” and “All the Way,” it’s often strangely inert, and unlike “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” it doesn’t boast the kind of galvanizing performance that can impart spontaneity or excitement into a piece that is otherwise rather conventional. Given that it offers no new insights on Madoff and underserves its stellar cast, it’s hard to see the return on this particular investment.