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Monday, May 22, 2017

On HBO: THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)


THE WIZARD OF LIES
(US - 2017)

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Kristen Connolly, Lily Rabe, Kelly AuCoin, Geoffrey Cantor, Steve Coulter, Neil Brooks Cunningham, Michael Goorjian, Diana B. Henriques, Michael Kostroff, Kathrine Narducci, Amanda Warren, Gary Wilmes, David Lipman, Sophie Von Haselberg, Clem Cheung. (Unrated, 132 mins)

As far as HBO prestige biopics go, THE WIZARD OF LIES is on the lesser end--not as good as YOU DON'T KNOW JACK but nowhere near the depths of the slobbering apologia of David Mamet's loathsome PHIL SPECTOR. A chronicle of disgraced financier, stockbroker, and former NASDAQ chairman Bernie Madoff, who was arrested in late 2008 for perpetrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history, a massive fraud to the tune of $65 billion. The fortunes of famous people (Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, John Malkovich, and, as if he hadn't endured enough in his life, Elie Wiesel), the life savings of Madoff's millionaire friends and some ordinary average people, as well as the funds of numerous Jewish-based charity organizations were lost in what ended up being a 16-year scam where all the stocks, trades, reports, statements, paper trails, everything was made up by Madoff, who was eventually crushed under the weight of it and couldn't find a way out, especially after the housing market crash of 2008. It was after that event that nervous investors began withdrawing their money, prompting him to lure in others to cover the cash that wasn't there, seduced by Madoff's bogus financial reports that showed his investments were still making money despite the severe downturn in the market.





Anyone familiar with the Madoff scandal knows what happened and that most of the money was never recovered, but THE WIZARD OF LIES doesn't really have anything to add. It does offer Robert De Niro as Madoff, in a slouchy and slightly nasally performance that's accurate as far as the Madoff we've seen in news footage, but director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) and the three credited screenwriters, among them Levinson's son Sam, never really let the viewer into Madoff's head to know what makes him tick or what drove him to do what he did. They're working from book by New York Times financial writer Diana B. Henriques (who appears throughout as herself in a hokey framing device that has her interviewing De Niro as Madoff), but from what's presented here, we don't see the charismatic guy that roped so many people into his scheme and somehow convinced them to put their entire fortunes in his hands. Just because he's got De Niro in the lead, Levinson (who previously directed the actor in SLEEPERS, WAG THE DOG, and WHAT JUST HAPPENED) instead tries to make a low-energy Martin Scorsese movie, complete what what sounds like a Scorsese mix cd (The Platters' "The Great Pretender" and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"--how did the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" not make the cut during a "Madoff scrambling for investors" paranoia montage?) playing at a swanky anniversary party for Madoff and his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer). At this same party, an obsessive-compulsive Madoff goes around inspecting each and every plate to make sure they're spotless while shattering the ones that aren't in a scene that lets De Niro riff on his Ace Rothstein hissy fit over blueberry muffins in Scorsese's CASINO (this bit was also referenced in EQUITY, another recent financial dud). THE WIZARD OF LIES plays like a listless Scorsese knockoff, bullet-pointing its way through the story to such a degree that Wikipedia should've been credited as a fourth screenwriter.


De Niro certainly looks the part as Madoff, and while he's not exactly busting his ass, he seems to be coasting somewhat simply because he isn't really given a character to play. It's as if Levinson and HBO figured "Well, De Niro's gonna look just like Madoff, so everything should just fall into place." Pfeiffer is a great American actress who works too infrequently to re-emerge for inconsequential movies like this (she's been offscreen since co-starring with De Niro in Luc Besson's 2013 mob comedy THE FAMILY). Though she spent time with Ruth Madoff to help prepare her performance and looks a lot like her, Pfeiffer comes off less like Ruth Madoff and more like a tribute to Edie Falco's work as Carmela Soprano. On top of that, she's miscast, as the 58-year-old actress looks several years younger, making it a pretty tough sell to buy that she's playing a 70-year-old who's been married for 50 years. Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow are fine as Madoff's sons Mark and Andrew, who worked for their father and claimed, along with Ruth, to be unaware of the scheme. Some of the film's high points come from the effect of the scandal on their lives, afraid to leave their homes for fear of being accosted by friends, former co-workers, and random strangers, and their arcs are all the more tragic considering Mark would hang himself in 2010 and Andrew, after distancing himself from his father and trying to salvage his own reputation, would succumb to cancer in 2014 at just 48. Despite working in fits and starts (Ruth's hurtful reaction to her favorite hairdresser firing her as a customer is well-played by Pfeiffer is well-done), THE WIZARD OF LIES' chief priority is making sure De Niro looked like a dead ringer for Madoff. It doesn't have much else to say and actually seems so bored with itself that it completely forgets about Hank Azaria, cast as Frank DiPascali, the top Madoff associate who ran the inaccessible 17th floor where all of the books were being cooked--a vital figure in the Ponzi scheme, he disappears from the film around 75 minutes in and is never seen or mentioned again. The more THE WIZARD OF LIES goes on, the more you realize that perhaps the better approach, especially since ABC just aired the Richard Dreyfuss/Blythe Danner miniseries MADOFF a year ago, would've been to examine this story from the perspective of anyone involved with it other than Bernie Madoff.

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