Blu-ray Review: The Wizard of Lies

By , Contributor
The opportunity to portray fraudster supreme Bernie Madoff spurred Robert De Niro to turn in his finest performance in recent memory. De Niro was rewarded with an Emmy nomination for his work in The Wizard of Lies, an HBO Films production that also garnered nods for co-star Michelle Pfeiffer (as Madoff's wife Ruth), and Outstanding Television Movie. Of course the story of Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme, which bilked unwitting investors out billions of dollars, is a tragedy for the ages. Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) treats the material with dignity. Mostly a somber affair, Wizard of Lies is a welcome antidote to the smartass snarkery of other recent "true crime" malarkey-fests lke American Hustle and American Made.

Hire a pro, get a pro—Levinson is a dignified, seasoned filmmaker (son Sam co-write the screenplay, based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques). His Wizard eschews the soulless pap pumped out by the likes of aforementioned hackwork by David O. Russell, Doug Liman, or the late Ted Demme's atrocious Blow. Those films are all ersatz-Scorsese junk—entertaining to varying degrees perhaps, but steeped in a wink-wink "Only in America!" pseudo-humorous vibe that make them appear smarter than they are (as they liberally fictionalize their stories). Those are examples of flashier flicks that all received theatrical distribution. Once upon a time Wizard of Lies would've been there too. These days work this subtle finds more attentive audiences at home. 

rsz_wizard_of_lies_feat.jpg The focus here is Madoff's inter-family relationships. His long-loyal sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) are absolutely flabbergasted when their father confesses his crimes. Both Nivola and Darrow turn in sensitive performances as men who simply cannot fathom that their own father—idolized within the financial community for decades—hoodwinked them (and, of course, millions of others) for his own gain. The timeline of the narrative shifts skillfully between Madoff's incarceration period (his interviewer is Diana B. Henriques, doing a fine job playing herself) and the period immediately preceding his lockup. At the center of it all, De Niro plays Madoff not as a monster or a money-hungry psychopath, but as a smart, controlling, manipulative man who got caught up in his own despicable web (and obviously couldn't find a way out).

HBO Home Entertainment has provided little in the way of Blu-ray supplements, with only a short promotional featurette (labeled "Cast Interviews"—a stretch, to say the least). No Barry Levinson commentary, no documentary about the real Madoff. Check out Jeff Prosserman's Chasing Madoff (2011) for a non-fiction, feature-length examination.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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