Bernie Madoff, a man so stoic that news of his son’s death triggered less of a facial reaction than that of a billion dollar deal, is a role that was clearly destined for Robert De Niro. The septuagenarian actor is now at a stage in his career where all emotions can be conveyed with the same, nonchalant expression. Sadness? De Niro nonchalance. Happiness? De Niro nonchalance. Success? De Niro nonchalance. Failure? De Niro nonchalance. Being exposed by your own sons to the media for defrauding wealthy clients for billions of dollars? You get the picture. Such is the indifference of Robert De Nonchalant’s never-changing expression that, in The Wizard of Lies, he is far outshone by his supporting cast. Excusing the extraordinarily naff title and its boring lead, it’s actually an excellent film and I’m surprised it didn’t get a cinema release. The Sunday Times suggested last week that the reason no Hollywood studio wanted to attach their name to it might be because they fell victim to Madoff’s schemes. Either way, The Wizard of Lies is a stirring and thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be evil.
Unlike most thrillers where finance is at the forefront, we join the Madoff family in the aftermath of the scandal, not during it. Bernie Madoff is a former American fraudster and investment banker who, using ‘Ponzi schemes’, conned clients out of what is estimated to be as much as $64.8 billion. The scam had been underway since the 1970s, but it was not until 2008 that he was finally exposed (ironically, by his own sons who both worked for the company). What’s clever about The Wizard of Lies is that we don’t have to try to understand any of the economic jargon that comes with the complicated subject matter – the film focuses instead on the changing dynamic of the Madoff family. An unrecognisable Michelle Pfeiffer plays Ruth, Bernie’s wife, a wisp of a woman with a broad New York accent. She is fretful and single-minded, she only really stops bothering with her husband when her sons make it clear that she must choose between Bernie and them. Alessandro Nivola plays an obsessed and disturbed Mark Madoff who resorts to suicide when his family leave him to face his obsession with his father alone. These are the two best performances of the film.
The family’s tempestuous fall from grace can be traced from the Madoff’s at the height of their social and political domination, singing Sweet Caroline in a show of victory at a beach party, to the patriarchs’ attempted overdose, Mark’s suicide and Andrew’s surrender to cancer. The incredibly stylistic scene in which Ruth and Bernie attempt to overdose is laced with symbolism and foreshadowing – it is at once gorgeous and horrifying. Mark’s hanging body is even prophesised in Bernie’s drug induced hallucination. This scene, along with the rest of the film, is heightened by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s evocative score.
It occurred to me halfway through the film that, although Madoff isn’t a particularly terrifying nor overtly villainous character, life’s most evil villains are very plain. Real villains wear grey suits and work on London’s phallic skyline. Real villains are Oxbridge graduates. Real villains eat avocado on toast for lunch and do ‘hot yoga’ in their spare time. I’m going off on a slight tangent here but you’ll have to excuse the class rivalry on account of the upcoming general election. People like Bernie Madoff are evil in a less detectable, more acceptable sense.
It’s slightly strange that no suspicion is cast on the obliviousness of Madoff’s sons when it’s such a big part of the story. Their protestations of innocence are taken at face value, but I think a touch of ambiguity in their portrayals wouldn’t have gone amiss. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Wizard of Lies. As viewers, we have an obsession with wealth – trash TV like the Real Housewives franchise has done so well for a reason. Some of the best moments in this film come from motifs like Mark eating lobster even though he doesn’t like lobster and Ruth being recognised in a lift by a 10 year old. It’s easy to label an astute TV drama as “particularly relevant” to now; every other reviewer seems to dish out this response to anything remotely political. But The Wizard of Lies does feel particularly relevant to now. In a system that allows for the exponential growth of enormous wealth and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, dramas like these bring home the reality of crime in the 21st century.