‘The Wizard of Lies’ shortchanges Bernie Madoff story
Y?ou’d never be able to tell Barry Levinson directed this HBO film about the fall of the House of Madoff.
Helmed by the Academy Award-winner (“Rain Man”) and based on the book by Diana B. Henriques, “The Wizard of Lies” plays like one of those Investigation Discovery specials, albeit with prestige actors — Academy Award-winner Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer headlining as disgraced investment manager Bernie Madoff and wife Ruth.
The film jumps erratically across the years to show how Madoff’s arrest in 2008 for a $65 billion Ponzi scheme ruined his family, depicted here as much victims as those who trusted Madoff and lost their fortunes.
Yet it’s as if you are watching the work of a first-time director who read about his craft off a flash card.
After Bernie confesses culpability, Ruth complains — twice about being in the dark.
She is sitting in the dark as she complains.
Bernie and Ruth attempt a “nice” suicide on Christmas Eve 2008 — by overdosing on Ambien.
Bernie’s drug-induced dream, set to Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” turns downright Dickensian with visits from a young boy, his grown sons and an angry mob of clients — Christmas Past, Present and Future, in case anyone could miss the obvious.
These are just a couple of the more egregious examples.
“Wizard” isn’t the first TV film to explore the Madoffs. The ABC miniseries “Madoff” last year, with Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner in the lead roles, was more polished, but Bernie’s character and justifications remained more elusive.
As this two-plus-hour film progresses, De Niro (who does double duty as an executive producer) sinks under the skin of the rogue financier and shows that the white-collar criminal was as much a gangster as the protagonists in “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas.”
Bernie wears a polite, almost chastened face when dealing with the public. Privately, he’s a foul-mouthed tyrant, berating his grown sons to submission, deciding even what one should eat. At one point, he drives his 8-year-old granddaughter to tears. He’s dismissive of those who entrusted him with their life savings and are now destitute.
“These people had a little greed in them, too,” he says.
The film is a bit fat. No one needs the extended party riff from Hank Azaria (“Brockmire”) as Madoff’s right-hand-man Frank DiPascali comparing lady parts to automobiles. It seems to go on for hours.
Pfeiffer sinks into her role as a socialite stunned to be shunned, even if too much of her dialogue is just too on point to be authentic. Alessandro Nivola has some affecting moments as oldest son Mark, as the media feeding frenzy following his father’s arrest drives him to a horrible decision.
When Bernie finally asks whether an attentive reporter thinks he’s a sociopath, there’s no need for an answer.
The film has already clobbered you over the head with the obvious.