You know what’s been fairly amazing as of late? Films that should be Oscar contenders with genuinely envelope pushing content have found a home as made for TV movies on HBO. Behind the Candelabra would’ve been Michael Douglas’s best shot at another Oscar if it had been in theatres … but instead won rave reviews on the pay cable channel. In that vein comes Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro’s finest performance in so long that you forgot that at one point he was perhaps the finest actor of his generation.
De Niro stars as Bernie Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in human history. Madoff, who had served as chairman of NASDAQ at one point, ran a profoundly successful firm up until that fateful day in December 2008 where his scheme that defrauded Hollywood A-listers like Steven Spielberg and Jewish charities among its inordinate number of victims was finally shut down by the SEC. The size and scope of Madoff’s fraud was astounding, mainly because Madoff was supposed to be beyond reproach considering his fairly substantive history as a regulator.
For an actor who’s traded on his reputation as a tough guy for so long that this satire of an old tough guy is how an entire generation views De Niro, when he wants to he can still summon the thunder & lightning from the gods of acting to showcase just how good he can be. It makes you forget dreck like The Intern and Dirty Grandpa has been among the highlights of De Niro’s cinematic oeuvre ever since the paycheck seemingly exceeded the artistry for him.
One can imagine a film like Meet the Fockers doesn’t push one’s ability as an actor, of course, but the fact that De Niro hasn’t taken a lot of roles that push him in a way during the final act of his career that the Robert De Niro of his peak years would’ve speaks volumes. Back then a film with De Niro featured an actor with such daring, impressive roles in daring, impressive films. That De Niro took risks and dared, even in failure, as an actor. The De Niro of the majority of the past 20 years, probably ending with the presidency of Bill Clinton, hasn’t had the same sort of profound career that marked the first half of his career.
If this had been a theatrical release, Wizard of Lies would’ve been the sort of film that falls into the Oscar nominations like Milk. It’s on the border of good to average, a character study that’s profoundly flawed for a lot of reasons, but features such a tremendous performance from its lead that it doesn’t feel like a flawed film at first.
Wizard of Lies, if it had been a properly released film in theatres, would’ve easily been one that would’ve played well in a ton of awards from the Oscars to the Golden Globes. As it is … Wizard of Lies is another reminder that some of the best dramatic work in modern acting is done on television and not on film.
A handful of interviews are the only extras included.
HBO presents Wizard of Lies . Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burham Schwartz based off the novel of the same name by Diana B Henriques. Starring. Run Time: 133 minutes. Not Rated. Released on 10.3.17