HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies” is a fascinating but overwrought telling of the infamous Madoff scandal. Starring Robert De Niro (“Taxi Driver”) and Michelle Pfeiffer (“Hairspray”) as the central couple at the heart of the Madoff empire, the film tells a sprawling but overly long tale of deception, misfortune and the dark side of American greed.
De Niro stuns as the eponymous wizard, giving perhaps his best performance of the past few years. As portrayed by De Niro, Bernie Madoff is despicable, manipulative, psychotic but also fairly likeable. From scene to scene, more than anything else, it is De Niro’s endlessly compelling performance that keeps what is otherwise an underwritten film from falling flat. By the end of the film, as much as the audience wishes to hate Madoff with all their heart, it is simply difficult to because of De Niro's hypnotic performance.
Rivaling De Niro in performance (if not in screen time) is Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth, Madoff’s stooge of a wife. From the opening scenes, Pfeiffer elegantly and emotionally portrays all of the inherent contradictions of a generally moral woman who either couldn’t see or didn’t want to see what her husband had become, giving the film much of its emotional resonance. When it is focused on the complex, yet simultaneously old fashioned relationship between Bernie and Ruth, the film is firing on all cylinders. It’s when the focus moves away from this that things begin to falter.
The movie seems unsure of what its focal point should be. Is it the relationship between Bernie and his sons? The double standard in the way the Madoff scandal was treated compared to other kinds of crimes, particularly violent ones? The overall feeling of despair that many Americans had in 2008 and how that may have impacted what Madoff comes to perceive as a witch hunt against him? Or the attempts by a journalist to understand what motivated Madoff years after the sentence had been given and the story put to rest? The film doesn’t seem to know. All of these storylines get just enough screentime to justify their existence but not enough to fully address the complex issues of morality and society that they bring up. Any one of these could’ve been the focus of two hours on their own, but instead they all feel like tacked-on subplots of a film without a central focus. Some scenes just have no place in the film at all. Particularly egregious is a drug-induced dream sequence mid-way through that feels tonally and stylistically disconnected from anything else that happens in the film and will leave viewers wondering if they accidentally switched the channel from HBO to Showtime’s reboot of “Twin Peaks.”
Thankfully, strong performances from De Niro and Pfeiffer are able to save the day and overcome the film’s poor writing and structural issues, making it all but certain that should viewers sit down to watch this two hour biopic about the greatest pyramid scheme of all-time, they won’t feel like they’ve been conned.