Bernie Madoff isn’t in the best scene of HBO’s Bernie Madoff movie. No slight to Robert De Niro, who gives a fine performance as the Ponzi Schemer. The actor captures the fraudster’s frustrating banality-of-evil blankness. When the screen cuts to a close-up on De Niro’s face, he looks so much like Madoff that you want to throw something at your TV. But The Wizard of Lies is less convincingly about Bernie Madoff than it is about the struggle to understand Bernie Madoff: The search for why and how, by his family and his victims and the system, maybe even the man himself.
So the best and most provocative sequence in the movie is just that: People asking why, and how. Bernie’s older son Mark (Alessandro Nivola) has just discovered the truth of his father’s elaborate fraud, decades of lies and GDPs of cash evaporated. He’s being questioned by government investigators, who can’t believe that Mark was in the dark. The man worked for his father. Didn’t he ever ask any questions?
“You’re the FBI,” Mark responds, angry and desperate, but most of all confused. “You’re the SEC. You investigated him before. How the f— did you not know?” He lists all his father’s honorifics. Bernard L. Madoff was Chairman of NASDAQ, Chairman of the International Securities Corporation, Chairman of the National Business Conduct Committee. The list slips into financial esperanto; I marked in my notes the phrase “FINRA before FINRA existed.” That sounds important! (Maybe that was the problem.)
Why didn’t the government know? Why didn’t his family know? The Wizard of Lies wants to cycle between the personal and the political. We meet Bernie and his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), watch the dissolution of their marriage and their sons’ lives. We also meet Bernie’s victims, in a flurry of montage sequences that feel well-intentioned but also unconvincingly mandated, like the film is distracted by its subject’s own devastation. And there are flurries of news footage, and financial exposition. There are dream sequences, flashbacks. Wizard of Lies is based on a book by New York Times journalist Diana B. Henriques, and she’s here too, playing herself throughout as Bernie’s Grand Inquisitor.
The films wants to do so many things. Most of them feel like distractions. Don’t understand the finances? Here’s some family drama! Bored of the family? Here’s the courtroom! Too bummed out by the victims? Look, here’s a flashback to the Madoffs living large in the Hamptons! The constituent parts mask the lack of an actual whole. The film itself is a Ponzi Scheme.
And what is a Ponzi Scheme? I think we all know? Let’s not test each other. The 2008 financial crisis is the single most important event in recent history that barely anyone understands. The numbers are difficult, the language obtuse, the intentions inscrutable. The problem was computers, or capitalism, or them, or us. Any attempt to dramatize the event requires some amount of narrative hand-holding. In 2011, HBO produced Too Big to Fail, a well-intentioned Love, Actualization of the financial crisis with a cast of familiar faces playing all the people they wrote headlines about. It had the facts but lacked a pulse. And even Oliver Stone’s hilariously point-missing Wall Street sequel had the good humor to stage a meeting of the major Wall Street banks like a Luciferian daytime soap opera. (With Josh Brolin as “Bretton James,” fiscal supervillain and motorcycle enthusiast!)
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call caught the apocalyptic mood by giving everyone a soliloquy; it’s maybe the best movie ever to end with a symbolic dead dog. Adam McKay’s The Big Short found the dark humor inside the apocalypse. I loved it in theaters but was surprised how little it affected me when I re-watched it last week. The Big Short is a majestic act of mass-market wonkery, and I think it should be mandatory viewing for eighth graders, but it’s also maybe a star-studded PowerPoint presentation. (I prefer McKay’s 2010 The Other Guys, a cinematic stealth missile about buddy cops who discover the American economy is a lie.)
McKay and Chandor are both profoundly logical filmmakers, sifting through every level of the crisis to uncover the collective malfeasance of an industry (and a country) gone mad with money. I’m not sure logic is the answer here, cinematically speaking. For genuine insight, I think of Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, a noirish variation on a Madoff-type story, fiscal truth classed up with a dead French mistress and a stunt-cast Graydon Carter. Richard Gere played a shady hedge fund manager, beset on all sides by ruin of his own creation. The easy knock on Gere is that he’s too handsome for anything, but he was brilliant in the film, capturing something weary and powerful in a whole life built on falsehood. Arbitrage didn’t touch the actual financial crisis, but only because it seemed to suggest that the whole system is in constant crisis.
The Wizard of Lies approaches the crisis laterally. Madoff’s scheme unravels when the system does. And the film’s Bernie situates himself in the greater context of 2008. “This country needs a villain,” he says. (The implication isn’t that they picked the wrong guy, but rather, they should’ve picked more guys.)
The film properly begins on December 10, 2008, with Madoff trying to write a few final checks before the money disappears. He reveals his great lie to his family, and things spiral from there. We see the scandal, and we see what led up to it. Bernie hosts a party at the Hamptons, dancing with his family and singing along to “Sweet Caroline.” We see Bernie at a rich-person party, desperately hunting for new investments. While the percussion-only soundtrack rumbles, various wealthy men walk up to Bernie and demand that he take their money; one guy offers a few hundred million dollars, and Bernie walks away without ever finding out his name.
Moments like this are charged. Director Barry Levinson has an occasional eye for the surreal details in the realities of the case. In a standout sequence, Ruth announces to Bernie that she has decided to kill herself. How, her husband asks, will she do it? “Something nice,” Ruth says, nonchalantly. “Maybe Ambien.” Husband and wife take a few dozen pills together, and try to fall into a deep final sleep. (This apparently actually happened, though good luck trusting anything these days.) Bernie can’t close his eyes; it’s almost Christmas, so he turns on Meet Me In St. Louis, stares at Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s a bleak, funny scene that unfortunately dead-ends into a bargain-Kafka dream sequence: Bernie versus his sons, Bernie versus journalists, Bernie versus his own death. Somehow, The Wizard of Lies is least creative when it’s most creative.
Levinson’s working with facts, but he’s also working with family. Son Sam Levinson is a credited co-writer (along with Reservation Road author John Burnham Schwartz). Maybe that’s why the story focuses so much on Bernie’s family. It’s an intriguing idea – “his family members were victims too,” the film argues. Maybe you think that misses the point, but the main problem is there just isn’t much film there. The family didn’t interact much after Bernie’s revelation, so the film can only trap them in their own sad separate declines. Nivola and Nathan Darrow (House of Cards’ Meechum) do fine work as Madoff’s sons, but their tragedy starts and ends in the film’s opening minutes.
That’s true for Ruth, too. She spends the movie in a daze, barely cognizant of how her whole world ended. But Pfeiffer is stunning. She plays the part with a Queens accent so thick it’s funny, but Pfeiffer digs past rich-housewife-gone-broke schadenfreude, and find the heartbreakingly confused tragedy. She’s been demolished – by the man she loved, and the lives he ruined. She doesn’t understand how, can’t really grasp why. Neither do we. B