The Wizard of Lies

HBO, Saturday, May 20 at 8 PM

May 19, 2017 Web Exclusive
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The Wizard of Lies opens with a disarmingly candid, calm Bernard Madoff, as he informs his wife and two adult sons that their whole wealth enterprise is a sham. Worse, it's infinitely illegal and imminently imploding. In a week, the feds are going to knock on the door and cart Bernie off to jail, most likely for the rest of his life. For decades, he has done nothing but steal from and lie to those closest to him, those who idolized him. 

The bluntness with which Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, as the biggest grifter in U.S. history, delivers the news is in stark contrast to the Bernard Madoff Americaand the worldcame to know at the tail end of 2008. That man was a vile, almost cartoonishly remorseless, deceiver extraordinaire who ruined untold lives in the pursuit of insatiable greed. With seemingly not a single qualm, he stole from working class and rich (and supremely rich) alike, unbeknownst to his investors, swindling them of every penny with which they entrusted him. When news of his Ponzi Scheme broke, thousands realized Madoff had wiped out their life savings, catapulting them into bankruptcy and homelessness by professing to trade in stocks that never existed. Madoff's own wife and sons thought him to be on the up and up. His boys and brother worked, not just for, but also intimately with him. Yet, Madoff was nearly exclusively alone about his fraud. Hank Azaria costars as the slithering Frank Dipascali, one of the few people knowingly working to forward Madoff's disingenuous business. 

While Azaria is appropriately slimy as Dipascali, it is De Niro's equanimity that's the most unsettling. Even when lying to someone's faceto his own wife's face as he agrees to invest her sister's moneythe man is eerily unflappable. Only a veteran talent like De Niro could convey so much through Madoff's often-stoic face. As Madoff's wife, Ruth, Michelle Pfeiffer is far more expressive (and, in this adaptation, depicted free of any guilt). But, like everyone else in his life, she remains oblivious to his trespasses, and for that, she pays a terrible price. As does everyone affected. 

Without offering any spoilers, the film ends with a question, which both summarizes and analyzes not only itself, but also its titular subject matter. Barry Levinson's The Wizard of Lies is a fascinating, and in many ways horrifying glimpse into one of the most notorious thieves in American history. (www.hbo.com/movies/the-wizard-of-lies)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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