Few directors have proven more adept at spinning entertaining social commentary out of the often toxic byproducts of the American Dream than Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt“). So we’re relishing the rightness to today’s news that the Czech-born director was working on a film about the legendary scam artist, Charles Ponzi, based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend
Not only did Bernie Madoff steal billions from his legions of gullible, greedy, and/or just plain unlucky investors; he even ripped off the blueprint for the scam itself, which involved luring clients to entrust him with their life savings with the promise that he held the secret formula to make their money multiply. The true architect of the scheme was Charles Ponzi, a Boston-based boondoggler extraordinaire, who promised huge returns to anyone who backed his outlandish plot to buy and sell international postage and pocketed the cash himself, while doling out just enough dividends to mollify his marks.
The story’s ripped-from-the-headlines contemporary relevance combined with its allegory of the uniquely American entitlement to transformative wealth place it squarely within Forman’s creative strike zone, a place that has arguably eluded him since the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, “Man on the Moon.” For the past decade, Forman has retreated somewhat from his rightful place among Hollywood’s A-List directors, working only sporadically on admirable films that fell short of achieving their lofty potential or finding a worldwide audience. The first was “Goya’s Ghosts,” a biopic about the Spanish romantic painter, which was praised for its lush visual tableau but failed to cohere into an engaging narrative. His most recent project was the staging and filming of the Czech musical, “A Walk Worthwhile,” which never received a Stateside theatrical release. He’s also attached to direct Vaclav Havel‘s screen adaptation of the Georges-Marc Benamou historical novel, The Ghosts of Munich, about the Munich Agreement, in which a part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by the Nazis.
Apparently Forman did not intentionally retreat from mainstream moviemaking. Rather he has struggled to get a major film off the ground on his own terms. Forman is not the kind of artist willing to take director-for-hire work just to stay in the game. So the Ponzi picture, with its loose association with the heated emotions tied up in the Bernie Madoff scandal, represents his best shot in a long time at striking the right balance between maintaining his creative integrity while providing a commercial hook necessary in today’s Hollywood to convince financially wary studios to green light the film.
The question remains: Who would play Ponzi? It’s got to be someone charming but slightly oily and ideally with some Italian flavor. Paging James Franco.