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HBO Ignores Madoff's Victims in Favor of Family Drama

The Wizard of Lies starts too late in the scam and misses much.

'The Wizard of Lies''The Wizard of Lies,' HBOThe Wizard of Lies. HBO. Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m.

Sorry, guys. Showtime has decided not to offer advance screenings of its reboot of the milestone of television weirdness, Twin Peaks, which premieres this weekend. This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb.

So instead of an incisive analysis of boogalooing and backwards-talking midgets, I can offer only the observation that every criminal breeds his own cult. Just as there are women who want to marry Charles Manson, there are people anxious to buy Bernie Madoff's underwear. And Madoffian salirophiliacs compose much of the audience for The Wizard of Lies, HBO's windy new docudrama on the decline and fall of the all-time Ponzi champ.

The $65 billion collapse of Madoff's smoke-and-mirrors trading empire in 2008 would seem to offer great dramatic potential. Unlike the largely faceless, institutional banking collapse around the same time that triggered the Great Recession, the Madoff scandal had an easily identifiable villain driven by evil intention rather than carelessness. And his betrayal was breathtakingly personal; the thousands of victims included most of his friends and even his in-laws. There was even a potential hero: Harry Markopolis, an investment officer at a rival firm who for a decade fruitlessly warned that Madoff's returns were too good to be true.

All these elements are present in Wizard, not to mention a marquee cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, with frequent Oscar nominee Barry Levinson producing and directing. Yet it all comes together with much more fizzle than sizzle.

Much of what's wrong with Wizard can be traced to Levinson's decision to go with a script by three relatively inexperienced writers (including his son Sam) that begins relatively late in the story—the day before Madoff's chicanery was exposed—and concentrates mainly on the damage he did to his own family. That precludes any real examination of any of the characters on their way to the top; all we see is their precipitous fall.

Madoff's fraud is believed to have begun in the 1970s. His sons Mark and Andrew were both traders for the company, and his wife Ruth its bookkeeper in the early days. But they all denied any knowledge of his scheming, a claim grudgingly accepted by investigators (who never charged any of the three with anything), if not the public.

Wizard follows Mark (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards) as they're bullied to the line of sanity and ultimately beyond it,

alternately by their parents for disloyalty—the boys were the ones who revealed the fraud to federal authorities, then refused to help raise bail money for their father—and by friends who were wiped out.

More fascinating, in a bug-under-the-magnifying-glass sort of way, is the case of Ruth (crisply played by Pfeiffer), cagey enough to give away a small fortune in jewelry before the cops can seize it, but utterly oblivious to the cracks in her cocoon of wealth and social standing until the mounting rage of her friends-turned-victims gets her kicked out of her regular beauty salon. Despite the mounting toll, she can't break away from her husband of more than five decades. As they lie in bed, awaiting for the effects of what will turn out to be a botched mutual attempt at a suicidal overdose of sleeping pills to take effect, Bernie murmurs a poignant goodbye: "We had a wonderful life." Without even a glance, she replies: "Yeah ... until you ruined it."

This is all well and good, and might have made a good episode of Showtime's barbarous Wall Street drama Billions. But, having expressed every cogent thought in its head in the first 50 minutes, Wizard drags along for another tortuously repetitive hour and half, a long day's journey into utter banality. De Niro's strangely mannered turn as Madoff does not help. Long stretches of phlegmatic resignation punctuated by seemingly random bursts of sociopathic rage ("They didn't want to look too hard," he snaps of his victims at one point, "they're accomplices in some way, too") offer little in the way of illumination about how and why a seemingly talented trader started down a road he must have known would end in disaster. About the only thing that can be said for De Niro's performance is that it's more convincing than that of New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques, the author of the book upon which Wizard is based, who somehow manages to be utterly unconvincing as herself. Don't quit your day job, ma'am

Photo Credit: 'The Wizard of Lies,' HBO

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb.

    Seems like it's always the latter.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Oh there is epic concealment afoot, you can count on that. It's a safe bet deep pockets will fund more propaganda movies to blame the Bush asset-forfeiture Crash and Depression on greed, overspeculation, mortgage contracts, clauses in derivative products, fast connections, slow regulations... ANYTHING but gun-fisted confiscation and meddling by the same prohibitionists who created the huge underground market. But the market--once toppled--reveals itself to have been an Atlas supporting financial markets, as in 1929.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    how and why a seemingly talented trader started down a road he must have known would end in disaster

    He learned it from watching you, Uncle Sugar!

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Oh, that's right, Twin Peaks is coming back. I believe in you, David Lynch. The world needs backwards talking dancing midgets right about now.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Problematic!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Differently-ordered Terpsichorean little people.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    I would have accepted differently temporal, but this will do.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That gum you like is going to come back in style.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Gum? Back in my day we chewed on erasers!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Twin Peaks might not be weird enough to provide an escape, anymore.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Much more fizzle than sizzle" is what it says on $park¥'s Tinder profile.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Did you swipe right anyway?

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Fizzle. Is that a euphemism for santorum?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Swipe right and you'll get to find out.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    'De Niro's performance is that it's more convincing than that of New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques, the author of the book upon which Wizard is based, who somehow manages to be utterly unconvincing as herself. Don't quit your day job, ma'am'

    Ouch!

  • Hank Phillips||

    It is impressive how much ready cash can be found to cook up pseudofinancial theories to explain away yet another Republican asset-forfeiture Crash and Depression. The states hardest hit were the ones with the most enthusiastically predatory asset-forfeiture orgies. But with venal unionized public officials doing the gorging, what politician is likely to point to the inconvenient truth behind the way prohibition enforcement is the leper's bell of the approaching economic disaster?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Madoff is likely a convenient patsy for the George Waffen Bush asset-forfeiture crash, just as Singh Sarao is the patsy chosen nearly at random and assigned blame for the results of FATF and government confiscation of Colombian bank accounts immediately before the May 6, 2010 Flash Crash. This was already an old tactic when Farenheit 451 was written. Ivar Kreuger, the match king was the subject of an Ayn Rand play just as Aldous Huxley depicted Clarence Hatry no less sympathetically. British and American officials were eager to distract attention from alcohol enforcement (USA) and narcotics enforcement (UK) as contributing factors to the financial upheavals of 1929-33 just as today no lie is to coarse to mask the role of asset-forfeiture and exportation of suicidal enforcement policies responsible for triggering the subprime collapse and two subsequent flash crashes. So pick a patsy, loose the looter media to stir up a lynching, and hope nobody notices the financial policy directives.

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