Movie reviews: The Wizard Of Lies and The Beautiful Fantastic

If there is one silver lining for Singaporeans in the Bernie Madoff debacle, it is that Madoff made the crimes of Singapore-based rogue trader Nick Leeson look like shoplifting at a 7-Eleven.

Madoff was found in 2008 to have defrauded thousands of investors in a Ponzi scheme, the largest in American history, with investors losing an estimated US$18 billion.

What grabbed the public imagination were the tidbits that emerged in the aftermath: That his family, even the two sons who worked in the same firm, claimed to know nothing about the patriarch's shady dealings; that for years, experts had warned the authorities about fishy business at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, but were ignored; and that there was no sophisticated financial sleight-of-hand behind the con.

Madoff's empire was created from words - promises, threats, deflections - whispered into the ears of the right people. Or, as software people call it, social engineering.

HBO's dramatisation of the scandal, The Wizard Of Lies (HBO, 125 minutes, now showing, check hboasia.com for schedule, 3/5 stars), gets the basics right, but leaves the deep, interesting stuff frustratingly untouched.

Perhaps it is because Madoff's inner depths are unfathomable. The words "narcissist" and "sociopath" are thrown around a lot these days, but director Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, 1987; Wag The Dog, 1997) pins the crime on Madoff's grotesque amount of self-regard and near-complete absence of a moral compass.

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard Of Lies, an HBO movie about the largest Ponzi scheme in American history.
Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard Of Lies, an HBO movie about the largest Ponzi scheme in American history. PHOTO: HBO

Robert De Niro is excellent as the villain, playing him as a man who put his own suffering on a pedestal while diminishing everyone else's, and Michelle Pfeiffer is also good as Ruth, the wife for whom the betrayal of trust was the biggest blow, with the rapid downscaling of her upscale New York lifestyle coming a distant second.

But as Madoff tells journalist Diana Henriques, whose prison- house interviews with the fraudster form the book on which this film is based, his victims should have known that if it sounds too good to be true, then it most likely is.

Yes, that would be shifting blame to the victims, but that thinking hints at a more cynical, absurd and interesting story path, compared with what is here: A fine but otherwise plain domestic tragedy about a crime family that never knew it was a crime family until it was too late.

Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Brown Findlay in This Beautiful Fantastic.
Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Brown Findlay in This Beautiful Fantastic. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

For something lighter, one might turn to This Beautiful Fantastic (PG, 92 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars), a drama-comedy about English eccentrics set in an England that looks to be any year from 1950 to 2000.

The trip to whimsy-town starts with a voiceover explaining the odd birth and even odder quirks of Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay), a librarian trying to be a children's book writer, but who cannot seem to overcome her compulsions, chief among them her fear of open spaces.

Her trials are worsened by the grouch next door, Mr Stephenson (Tom Wilkinson), but lightened by a new friend, the silly-but-sweet inventor, Billy (Jeremy Irvine).

This movie is like the tourist gift packs for sale at Gatwick or Heathrow airports - it is Britain In A Box. Instead of marmalade, biscuits and tiny teddy bears, this package contains the other kind of sweet stuff - quaint gardens, silly misunderstandings, first kisses and wishes coming true.

Like the gift pack, it feels prefabricated and heavy on the treacle, but writer-director Simon Aboud at least delivers it with genuine sincerity and affection.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'A fraudster, his family and English eccentrics'. Print Edition | Subscribe