'The Wizard of Lies': TV Review

More detached character study than hard-hitting docudrama.

Robert De Niro gives a quietly intense performance in HBO's Bernie Madoff telefilm, which could be retitled 'Sympathy for the Devil's Family.'

The worst and most unforgivable thing Bernie Madoff does in HBO's The Wizard of Lies has nothing to do with the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme he ran, the savings he decimated, the lives he ruined. Bernie's unforgivable sin in Barry Levinson's telefilm comes when he rebuffs his 8-year-old granddaughter for asking a question about Wall Street at the dinner table, swears at her and makes the poor girl cry.

Featuring an enigmatic lead performance by Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies only sometimes tips its hand when it comes to wholly condemning the disgraced former NASDAQ chair, but there are rules regarding what a movie character can or can't come back from and making a child weep is well beyond the pale.

To explain what The Wizard of Lies is, it's first necessary to point out all of the things you might expect it to be that it is not. There's an assumption in Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz's adaptation of Diana B. Henriques' book that audiences will have some basic understanding of how and what Madoff did that have him serving a 150-year prison sentence. This is not a primer in illicit dealing and financial improprieties, or a traditional biopic detailing the conditions that led to his rise or celebrating the factors behind his downfall. Unlike ABC's so-so Madoff telefilm from last spring, it generates neither heist-style antics nor tension from the game of cat-and-mouth that Madoff played with authorities and even with his own kin.

Wizard of Lies is a much odder thing, a character study without a conclusive answer to be revealed on its subject.

There's a complicity between frequent collaborators Levinson and De Niro that carries The Wizard of Lies, an agreement that watching Madoff think, usually in close-up, would be more fascinating than overwhelming viewers with a litany of bad things he did. There are moments when he browbeats or belittles sons Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola), but they're countered by scenes of affection between Bernie and wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), childhood sweethearts married for over 50 years. There's one sleeping pill-fueled hallucination that temporarily reframes Madoff as Roy Cohn from Angels in America, a tortured villain confronting his victims and experiencing a literal hell on earth surrounded by computers with flaming monitors, but that's so extreme it feels like it comes from a different movie.

The movie Levinson has made is more a chilly portrait of calculation. In the ABC telepic. Richard Dreyfuss sometimes allowed a rascally grin to escape, suggesting Madoff's pleasure at what he was viewing as a game. De Niro's approach accentuates Madoff's stillness and portrays his machinations as something deeply ingrained. We watch the same wheels spin as he peppers caterers with questions about the seafood at a fancy gala as when he jockeys a potential investor from a $100 million buy-in to $400 million. It's a thing he does without consideration and without enjoyment, which probably answers that "sociopath" question right there. Especially in recent years, some critics have accused De Niro of doing something similar, of acting on autopilot and phoning in performances, but however quiet he is here, it's a focused energy and anything unreadable is wholly intentional.

(It's perhaps a bit notable that Baum, one of the three The Wizard of Lies writers, previously created the Fox drama Lie to Me, featuring Tim Roth as a master of micro-expressions, a human lie detector. Roth's character would be the ultimate The Wizard of Lies viewer, because De Niro's performance is all in the micro-expressions.)

The intimacy of Levinson's camera puts us as close to Madoff as possible and we're left to wonder, just as those with the most real-life intimacy were left to wonder. The "How could his children and wife not have known?" question has been bandied about for nearly a decade, and that continues here. The Wizard of Lies doesn't go quite to the extreme of suggesting that Madoff's real victims were his family members who lived in luxurious excess and then became pariahs. Still, it's close.

"It's hard to tell our story ... when there are so many other stories," Andrew laments, and many are likely to want to replace "hard" with "undesirable." Black-and-white cutaways and snippets of testimony highlight a few of the civilians Madoff bilked, but that can't compare to the sheer amount of torment expressed over and over by Andrew, Mark and Ruth. After the fifth "We didn't know!" protestation, I was weary. After the tenth, I started to distrust them out of spite.

Accentuating Ruth's confusion and an occasionally broad Queens accent, Pfeiffer's performance is like a sad spin on her classic comic turn in Married to the Mob. Here, the actress plays the shell of a woman who has been obliviously shackled to evil for too long. It's too late for Ruth to extricate herself, and she can only express bafflement at being treated by the media as a potential evil genius when she's clearly not. Nivola's Mark has to give more voluble reaction to his father's crimes and his descent into comment-reading obsession is extremely well-played, even if the script has only the most basic interest in either son as characters. The women in their respective lives, played by Lily Rabe and Kristen Connolly, have even slighter parts, but generate some sympathy.

Among the other castmembers, Hank Azaria has the most fun as Madoff's partner-in-scam Frank DiPascali, a scuzzy figure who vanishes entirely from the second half of The Wizard of Lies. He seems an uncouth, cartoonish character from a different movie, but some viewers are likely to think that movie would be more entertaining.

"Let me ask you a question: Do you think I'm a sociopath?" Madoff asks Henriques, who competently plays herself, grilling the businessman in a series of interviews from prison. We don't see her response and the question comes late enough in the movie that viewers have to decide for themselves, rather than having the storytellers steer us helpfully to an answer subsequently.

It's not a "Yes" or a "No" thing, but rather an "If you haven't figured it out for yourself, you may never know" proposition. It's an interesting approach, but I'm not sure that The Wizard of Lies is always satisfying or enlightening.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Nathan Darrow, Hank Azaria, Lily Rabe, Kristen Connolly
Writers: Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, John Burnham Schwartz
Director: Barry Levinson
Premieres: Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)