THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)

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!

Grade: B+

YEAR ONE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content throughout, brief Strong Language and Comic Violence

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg

Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde & June Diane Raphael

Harold Ramis proved himself to be a strong force in cinematic comedy with CADDYSHACK, VACATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. His final stint as a writer and director came in 2009’s YEAR ONE. The film was being promoted as a potential big summer blockbuster, but fell short of studio box office estimates and audience’s/critics’ expectations alike. YEAR ONE is far from Ramis’s best work, but there is entertainment to be found here. This film suffers from a jumbled narrative, cheap gross-out gags, and dusty jokes, but does contain solid moments and some clever writing.

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Zed is an overconfident hunter. Oh is a shy gatherer. Both are outcasts in their tribe, but Zed aims to change this by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This scheme backfires as Zed and Oh are banished from their small community and take off on history’s first road trip. Along their way, they run into a variety of colorful Biblical figures (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the city of Sodom). They quickly discover that they might have a further purpose to serve when the cavemen and cavewomen of their community are captured as slaves. Along the way, Zed tries to find himself as a hero and Oh has an internal debate about the existence of God.

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YEAR ONE isn’t up to the same level as Ramis’s other comedies. This is evident by an overreliance on gross-out gags. The film’s tone becomes entirely too juvenile in scenes of Jack Black eating poop, Michael Cera sleeping with a flatulent roommate, and an upside-down Cera urinating on himself. These cheap moments of crude humor stick out further when you consider how smartly written other parts of the screenplay are. Even though their dialogue quickly devolves into penis humor, the introduction of Abraham (a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing McLovin in Biblical times) is entertaining and borderline blasphemous. My personal favorite moments involve the wicked, guilt-ridden Cain (David Cross delivering the best performance in the film). Vinnie Jones also receives a few good scenes as the hulking Sargon, who mainly serves as an intimidating straight-man to the absurdity surrounding him.

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YEAR ONE’s biggest pitfall comes in Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh being the least interesting characters in the entire movie. Every performer surrounding them manages to be far more entertaining than these two boring protagonists. Black is doing his typical loud idiot shtick and Cera is playing his usual awkward persona, the would-be hook is that they’re doing these routines in various Biblical costumes. On a positive note, Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in as the overly flamboyant High Priest. Platt, David Cross, Vinnie Jones, and borderline sacrilegious humor are the film’s highlights. It’s a pity that the rest of the writing and performances aren’t nearly on the same level of hilarity.

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YEAR ONE’s flaws don’t simply stay with its overreliance on potty humor and bland protagonists, but also extends to a rather jumbled narrative. The film is essentially a Monty Python wannabe as it goes from skit-like segment to skit-like segment, but some of these (especially during the first third) don’t have any punch line to be found. When Oh is being attacked by a snake in the forbidden garden, we never see how it turns out. Less than ten minutes later, the same exact situation occurs again with a cougar and there’s still no punch line. A couple of haphazard lines of dialogue could have patched these plot gaps up, but the three screenwriters didn’t even bother to put that much effort into the script.

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While YEAR ONE has its moments (sacrifices being watched as sports-like entertainment, an intense” chase between two slow-moving carts, Cain being a constant asshole), it also relies far too much on poop, fart, and sex gags. It’s not that crude humor can’t be funny, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort being put into these jokes (save for a Eunuch character). YEAR ONE isn’t technically “good” due to a messy script, lame-brained jokes that fall flat, and two boring leads, but I enjoy it on a “guilty pleasure” level. If you’re looking for something that is light-hearted, dumb as a rock, and will kill 97 minutes of your life, then I’d recommend YEAR ONE on those merits. Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Billy Ray

Written by: Billy Ray

(based on an article by Buzz Bissinger)

Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, Hank Azaria & Rosario Dawson

How much trust do you place in the news? A lot of Americans have found themselves evaluating that question after the recent incidents with Brian Williams (surprising) and Bill O’Reilly (not surprising in the slightest). Stephen Glass outdid those two reporters during the late 90’s. Glass worked for The New Republic (a much respected and honored magazine) and became a sensation during his three-year stint there. Unfortunately for the New Republic, Glass had completely fabricated more than half of his stories that were being printed as fact. SHATTERED GLASS is the directorial debut from Billy Ray (director of BREACH and writer of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) and retells the Stephen Glass incident.

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The film is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion as Glass lectures a high school journalism class about the pressures of reporting and keys to being a successful writer. Between these pieces of narration we see Stephen’s popularity among staff at New Republic and the chaos of an article that tore his falsely built career apart, titled “Hack Heaven.” When a writer at Forbes online branch discovers that Glass’s article seems to be a complete work of fiction and throws allegations at New Republic, editor Charles “Chuck” Lane becomes highly suspicious of Stephen. As the investigation furthers, tensions rise between Chuck, Stephen and the rest of the staff that may destroy The New Republic in the process.

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SHATTERED GLASS is based on an interesting true story. Therefore, the script doesn’t need to try too hard to be entertaining. This is a compelling story to begin with and director/writer Billy Ray seems to realize that he didn’t need to tweak too many details or plot points to win the viewer over. There’s a clear sense of frustration that rises to a fever-pitch as Stephen Glass grasps at straws to maintain his lies and finds himself digging a deeper hole for himself as he goes along, much to the dismay of Chuck Lane. There are a handful of recognizable faces throughout (including Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, and Hank Azaria), but Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard are the real stars of the show. Sarsgaard is completely believable as an editor who’s being placed in a comprising “damned he does, damned if he doesn’t” position. Meanwhile, Hayden Christensen is usually a so-so actor at best, but delivers a stellar performance as Stephen Glass that’s probably going to wind up as the best role of his career. You can’t believe a word that Stephen says and that’s the whole point.

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This film isn’t perfect thanks to a couple of script decisions that detract from what could have been a perfect film. Sections of Glass narrating the events to a class of high school students become downright distracting and unneeded at points. Not to mention that the way in which this narrative concludes is clichéd and disappointing. The Forbes reporters investigating the validity of “Hack Heaven” is just as interesting as everything else in this true story, but is completely neglected about halfway through the film. It seemed as if these scenes, with Steve Zahn as reporter Adam Penenberg, were building up to their own conclusion that never came to satisfying fruition. It’s not as if the script decisions derail a good movie, but they do keep it from perfection.

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SHATTERED GLASS is probably one of the most important movies about journalism and writing that I’ve seen. It will make you question how much faith you put in supposedly fact-based articles or news stories that you read/hear on a daily basis. Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen deliver phenomenal performances and the story is gripping the whole way through. Billy Ray seems to have a knack for turning real-life stories into good movies and I wish he’d make more of them. Over a decade later, SHATTERED GLASS is still relevant and highly recommended.

Grade: B

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