When You Can’t Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain: HBO’s The Wizard of Lies

No Spoilers

Even those of us who aren’t even remotely rich have no doubt heard of Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, causing investors to lose almost $65 billion. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist operating in the US in the 1920’s, Ponzi schemes always collapse, if only because there are no actual investments made with the monies deposited: earlier investors are paid “dividends” with the cash that newer investors deposit, although most of the monies usually go to the fraudster who sets up the plan. The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s film based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself interviewing inmate-Madoff in the film, concentrates more on the fall of the Madoff Empire rather than on explaining exactly how Madoff managed to dupe so many wealthy investors. The Wizard of Lies is a complex examination of a sociopath who, considering the fact that he’s in prison himself for 150 years, doesn’t believe he’s done anything too terribly dreadful to anyone else, especially not to his family members. De Niro’s performance as Madoff is understated and dazzling, and that alone makes the film worth watching.

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, © HBO

Robert De Niro, departing from his usual mob and gangster roles, plays sociopath Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. De Niro’s performance is understated and controlled to the point of disturbed-rattlesnake brilliant. De Niro only raises his voice a few times in the entire film — and even then, he’s not actually yelling — yet he manages to terrify. His gaze alone is a match for Medusa’s.

De Niro as Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

De Niro’s Madoff is so eerie, you wonder how anyone could have fallen for the investment scheme in the first place, but, of course, viewers see this version of the story already knowing about Madoff’s lies and treachery. The family dinner scene, which includes Madoff’s granddaughter, is De Niro at his menacing best: it reminded me of De Niro with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. Shivery-scary, my dears.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, who, unfortunately, seems rather dim-witted in this version of the story. As a woman who’s supported herself since the age of 14, I realize that I may be judging Ruth Madoff by standards which did not apply to her, but still I wonder how anyone could live in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, get $400 highlights “on demand” from an elite hairdresser, and not know that the “bottomless” income which supports her über-wealthy lifestyle was illegitimate. The Wizard of Lies portrays Ruth as absent-mindedly “innocent.” Whining and perpetually confused, Ruth is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand.

Despite the almost cardboard-portrayal of Ruth Madoff herself, Pfeiffer’s acting is classy and powerful. As understated as De Niro, Pfeiffer plays Ruth with a skill that reminds you why Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actors alive, especially in the scene with Ruth, alone, complaining about the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons to her and Bernie, and in the scene where she calmly explains to Bernie that she’s going to commit suicide.

Darrow as Andrew, De Niro as Madoff, Nivola as Mark, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

Madoff’s sons, Mark (Allesandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), ostensibly work on “another floor” in their father’s business, and so “know nothing at all” about the actual investments, the faux trades, and the impossibility of investments’ never having any losses. Mark and Andrew live in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, like Bernie, and have vacation houses, also like Bernie, but the siblings protest their innocence all the while complaining about and raging against the public’s perception of them as co-conspirators in their father’s fraud. Though it’s difficult to believe that Mark and Andrew could have been as innocent as the film depicts them, the actors do a credible job portraying the Madoff boys’ disillusion with their father and their subsequent anguish.

Hank Azaria, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

In one of his best roles, Hank Azaria plays Madoff employee and co-conspirator Frank Dipascali, the only person in the entire company who admits — in the film, at least — to having known about the faux trades and the investment scam. Dipascali manages the books in an office that resembles a corner behind the furnace in somebody’s basement. Azaria’s Dipascali is crude and vulgar, but he apparently knows how to use a computer efficiently enough to have Madoff’s complete and absolute trust. The Wizard of Lies portrays Dipascali as the only other person even remotely culpable in Madoff’s horrific scam, and Dipascali makes about as many apologies as does Bernie, which is to say, none at all.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff, and Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies © HBO

The Wizard of Lies is fascinating and scary, intense and sad. Does that mean I feel sympathy for Bernie Madoff? No. Do I feel sorry for Ruth, Mark, and Andrew Madoff, all of whom claim to never have known anything was suspicious about Madoff’s vast financial empire? No. I don’t believe they were as innocent as they claim, and the film didn’t change my opinion of them.

It’s a tribute to the HBO film, however, that I watched it fully expecting to be bored and confused by multitudinous, labyrinthine financial explanations. Instead, I was totally engaged by the film, which is compelling if only due to the principals’ extraordinary and powerful performances.

The Wizard of Lies is available for viewing free to HBO subscribers and through Amazon (with a 7-day HBO trial membership).

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