A sleek shark of a TV movie, The Wizard of Lies, directed by Barry Levinson and premiering on HBO Saturday night, gives us Robert De Niro portraying Ponzi-scheme king Bernie Madoff and makes his crimes sting with renewed pain. You don’t have to be rich to feel the agony of Madoff’s victims, and Wizard shrewdly transcends the-rich-are-people-too genre by making Madoff’s family drama seem universal.
Wizard is based on New York Times financial journalist Diana B. Henriques’s book of the same name. The movie is framed as a series of jailhouse conversations the reporter has with Madoff, but in no way does Wizard limit its perspective to Bernie’s point of view. The production doesn’t spend a lot of time going into the granular details of the financial double-cross that ruined many of his ultrarich investors and led to Madoff’s 2008 conviction and a sentence of 150 years in jail. Instead, Wizard of Lies gets personal, focusing much of its attention on Madoff’s marriage — wife Ruth is played by Michelle Pfeiffer — and family life, which included two sons who were part of Madoff’s investment firm: Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow).
De Niro plays Madoff as a cunning fox who tried to present himself as an affable teddy bear — at least to anyone who wasn’t related to him. De Niro and director Levinson do a great job of contrasting the jovial, upbeat, don’t-sweat-the-details schmoozer whom Madoff could be with clients, as opposed to the grim control freak he became behind the scenes and in intimate family moments. There’s a dinner scene in which Bernie makes his 8-year-old granddaughter cry for asking an impertinent question that will make any parent or grandparent cringe, but it’s a necessary detail for what Levinson is trying to get at here.
Wizard of Lies suggests that wealth corrupts in various ways. For Bernie, the power he exerted over his clients was measured by how much money he made for them (even if it turned out to be non-money) and, via his fees, for himself. For Ruth, wealth insulated her from the real world — she’s constantly telling anyone who’ll listen she never understood what Bernie was doing — and endowed her with her own mean, mingy attitude toward anyone who wasn’t a blood relative. At first, I thought Michelle Pfeiffer’s Ruth Madoff was a bit of a caricature — a distant cousin to Elaine May’s badgering-mother sketch with Mike Nichols. Then I read that Pfeiffer had spent time with Ruth, and I looked at video of Ruth being interviewed: Pfeiffer isn’t exaggerating at all — she’s got her down cold.
Hank Azaria continues his string of excellent performances these days (Ray Donovan; Brockmire) as Bernie’s right-hand man, Frank DiPascali; Levinson gives him a juicy little scene telling a dirty joke at a party that makes you kinda love the guy. Wizard of Lies comes after the 2016 ABC miniseries Madoff, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner as the Madoffs. This HBO production is shorter, but it manages to convey much more about the Madoff mindset.
Wizard of Lies premieres Saturday night at 8 p.m. on HBO.
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