Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Written by: Sam Levinson, Sam Baum & John Burnham Schwartz
(based on the book THE WIZARD OF LIES by Diana B. Henriquez)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Sydney Gayle, Lily Rabe & Kristen Connolly
In the span of little over a year, there have been two made-for-TV movies about Bernie Madoff. The first was ABC’s good-but-not-great miniseries MADOFF, which had a great scenery-chewing performance from Richard Dreyfuss and also came with half-assed melodrama. HBO offers a more cinematic glimpse at Madoff’s downfall with bigger talent in Barry Levinson’s THE WIZARD OF LIES. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, WIZARD offers significant improvements over the previous small-screen attempt to tell Madoff’s story.
In December 2008, a bombshell dropped on Wall Street as stockbroker Bernard Madoff (Robert De Niro) was revealed to be a total fraud. 50 billion dollars was lost and a media circus erupted around the largest Ponzi scheme in history. WIZARD OF LIES is told in a non-linear fashion as the narrative follows an incarcerated Madoff recounting his crimes to journalist Diana B. Henriquez (played by the actual Diana B. Henriquez). Throughout his interview, we see the months leading up to Bernie’s confession, his final days of freedom, and the devastating fallout that came after.
In an effort to resist constantly comparing THE WIZARD OF LIES to 2016’s MADOFF, I’m going to straight out recommend watching both of these made-for-TV movies if you’re fascinated with Bernie Madoff’s story. These are two very different takes on the same story that mostly stuck to the facts, but had drastically different executions. THE WIZARD OF LIES is a superior film in my eyes based strictly on performances, emotional depth, and better overall direction.
The shining star of the cast is undoubtedly Robert De Niro as Madoff. Bernie is De Niro’s juiciest role in years and he plays him as a sociopathic son of a bitch. This is a despicable guy who knows that he’s despicable and yet constantly attempts to make excuses for his scumbag behavior. He’s a master manipulator and seems collected on the surface, but also occasionally gets into explosive argumentative blow-outs. These are mainly directed at his put-upon emotional son Mark and an inquisitive 8-year-old granddaughter at a heated Thanksgiving dinner.
The supporting cast is exceptional as well. Though the titular “Wizard of Lies” may be De Niro’s Madoff, the film spends an almost equal amount of screen time focused on the family members who also got screwed over by his crimes. Michelle Pfeiffer garners sympathy as Madoff’s wife Ruth and gives a complicated mix of emotions. She loves her husband, in spite of his crimes, and still wants to hang on to her sons (who want nothing to do with her). Alessandro Nivola delivers one hell of a performance as Mark Madoff, an anxiety-ridden young man being driven to the brink of sanity by the media’s never-ending crucifixion of him. Hank Azaria is also appropriately scummy as Bernie’s main thug in charge of making shit up…er, I mean falsifying company records.
Barry Levinson’s direction of WIZARD OF LIES lends an air of craftsmanship to this retelling of a true crime story that’s nearly a decade old at this point. The film masterfully incorporates news footage from the time and replaces the actual Madoff’s face with De Niro’s mug. There are also refreshing breaks from the events at hand to fill the audience in on details that may not have been focused on in a traditional narrative, complete with voiceover by Henriquez. We learn about a handful of the many victims whose lives shattered because of Bernie. There’s also a nifty sequence that shows his possessions being sold with price tags attached (mostly with six zeros behind them).
While most of WIZARD is compelling and emotionally driven, there’s one moment that seems very out-of-place. This comes in a drawn-out dream sequence. We get CHRISTMAS CAROL references, family flashbacks, and subconscious innerworkings of Bernie’s mind. These are all lit by different colored Christmas lights in a long hallway (of course) and there’s even a “jump scare” that’s so forced it’s laughable. This is a distractingly ham-fisted piece of cheesiness in an otherwise effective drama and the film takes a while to fully recover from this needlessly silly dream sequence.
WIZARD OF LIES has a suffocating sense of hopelessness and bleakness that hovers over damn near every scene. Instead of merely focusing on Bernie’s downfall, we also see the fallout amongst his family members after his confession/sentencing. The scenes featuring his struggling sons and damaged wife are some of the most emotionally resonating bits of the entire film. Confrontations on the street, someone trying to sue a 4-year-old child for their stolen money back, and a hauntingly depressing moment punch the viewer squarely in the gut.
WIZARD OF LIES feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, but these events really happened and stole lots of people’s lives along with their money. The emotional reality of the situation causes the film’s final line (a question asked by Madoff to the reporter) to linger with the viewer long after the credits roll. If you are the least bit interested in the Bernie Madoff case and one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever constructed, then I highly recommend Barry Levinson’s WIZARD OF LIES!