The Bernie Madoff story has already been made into several movies. There was the 2010 documentary “Chasing Madoff”. Last year, Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner played Bernie and his wife Ruth in ABC’s two-night miniseries “Madoff”. Now, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer tackle the Madoff roles in HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies”.
De Niro and Pfeiffer are no stranger to Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards attention. With their performances in “The Wizard of Lies”, they’ll be campaigning for the first Emmy nominations of their careers.
“The Wizard of Lies” is directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) and adapted from Diana B. Henriques’s 2011 book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and The Death of Trust. Henriques plays herself here, conducting jailhouse interviews with Madoff (conversations that would eventually lead to the book). The entire film is structured as a Q&A, with Henriques grilling Madoff over the details and his motivations to perpetrate the biggest investment fraud/ponzi scheme in U.S. history – totaling $65 billion.
Madoff kept his decades-long “fake” operations hidden from everyone, including his own family. As Ruth, Pfeiffer does a standout job portraying someone who was kept completely in the dark, totally blindsided, and unsure of what to do next. None of her emotions are overblown or without legitimate reasoning.
Madoff’s two sons, Mark and Andy, who worked at their father’s firm, had a very difficult time dealing with the fallout from scandal, especially since everyone – from the FBI to the victims to the general public – believed they were in on it. “The Wizard of Lies” paints a negative picture of the national media, which, as is often does, rushed to judgement on the sons, seeking to suck the blood out of a family that, as this movie depicts, was also victimized.
To me, as someone who only knew of the Madoff scandal through headlines, “The Wizard of Lies” is absolutely fascinating. Watching De Niro alone is worth the investment. He portrays Madoff as a completely controlling of his family, from what they ate to what they could discuss at the dinner table (there’s actually a scene where De Niro goes toe-to-toe with an 8-year-old granddaughter over the Wall Street collapse). And we also see his manipulative side, conning rich friends and relatives into giving him their money… LARGE piles of money.
De Niro shaved part of his head in order to get as close to looking like Bernie Madoff as possible, telling Matt Lauer, “I did the shaving of the head because when you put on a… bald cap, if you look carefully, you always notice the forehead’s heightened just ever so much. You can see it. I felt you had to (shave) it in order to get the real effect.” And it works. Pfeiffer’s statements on having to do a “double take” during certain moments are accurate. And you feel the ruthless grit De Niro gives off in every single scene.
“The Wizard of Lies” is also appropriately, uniquely, stylized, enhancing the tension in just the right ways. The fractured narrative is a bit bothersome, as Levinson shifts around in time a little too much, but shifting isn’t a deal-breaker. Drums nicely score one scene. A hallucination sequence that takes place on Christmas Eve is one of the strangest of its kind that I’ve ever seen – and that also makes it one of the best.
“The Wizard of Lies” is a portrait of a modern day monster. That’s what Madoff was. Yes, Levinson explores his “humanities”, and do we get multiple layers through De Niro’s performance, but there’s very little grey area involving this man who caused so much pain and destruction, all the time maintaining a sense of denial that is both baffling and aggravating.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Wizard of Lies” gets a B+.
Running Time: 133 min.