With the Oscar-nominated The Big Short and Showtime’s Billions already making ripples, our year of slightly behind-the-curve outrage at the financial sector is about to get not one, but two TV movies about Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff.
Winning the Bernie Madoff race to air is ABC’s Madoff, starring Richard Dreyfuss as the former NASDAQ chair and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth. HBO’s The Wizard of Lies will follow at some point with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in those respective roles.
Premiering across two nights on Feb. 3 and 4, ABC’s Madoff is at an immediate disadvantage because it’s playing in a format that network TV doesn’t really do anymore. Even with networks edging into limited-series territory, the two-night miniseries is a rarity, but it still has more theoretical event value than a one-night biopic, so director Raymond De Felitta and writer Ben Robbins have taken a feature-length story and bloated it into 160 minutes of screen time that are then being spread over what has been structured as four hourlong episodes. Madoff feels padded, but also warped with artificial cliffhangers, corny ad-break musical stings, cheap attempts to add thriller elements and an ending that lurches across nearly half of the second night. Still, working from ABC News correspondent Brian Ross’ research and book The Madoff Chronicles, the movie has enough juicy details to remain very watchable, and Dreyfuss is having a great time playing this awful man.
Read more First Look Trailer for ABC’s ‘Madoff‘
Actually, many viewers are going to come away from Madoff feeling like it’s an extremely generous look at a criminal who gained notoriety for bankrupting the rich and poor alike, for preying on corporate interests and charities alike. Bernie Madoff did some foul things, Madoff seems to be saying, but industry-wide greed and a shameless lack of regulation let him get away with it. This is hard to dispute, but Madoff keeps that bigger picture at arm’s length and instead concentrates on the former investment advisor’s insatiable need to break from his roots in relative poverty and his family’s genetic legacy of cancer (an illness trope that’s repeated to the point of silliness) nearly as much as it paints Madoff as a cancer himself. It’s not wholly sympathetic, but there’s just enough humanizing and admiration to generate discomfort, probably intentionally so.
De Felitta relies a bit too heavily on Scorsese-lite flourishes — the wry voiceover, freeze-frame character introductions, poppy montages — but Madoff still works best when it’s presenting the main character as a con artist — less a magician, as the dialogue sometimes tries to imply — and illustrates the mechanics of the con. Here again, for every faked DTC code or comically and ingeniously aged document, Madoff shows Bernie manipulating a widow or a kid’s college fund as if to say, “Don’t get too impressed with his cleverness.” [Madoff’s celebrity victims get a late mention, but are wisely not the focus.]
This is the balance that Dreyfuss’ performance strikes as well, positioning Bernie between brilliant and venal, avuncular and reptilian. Certain characters, particularly brassy secretary Eleanor (Erin Cummings) and long-suffering brother Peter (Peter Scolari), bring out Bernie’s duality so that there’s menace in every kindness. By virtue of giving him ample things to do, this is Dreyfuss’ best and most developed performance in over a decade.
As things unravel around Ruth, Danner rises to Dreyfuss’ level in the second night after a first half that mistakes having Ruth hold a glass of wine for characterization. The second hour also rescues Tom Lipinski and Danny Deferrari, playing Bernie’s sons, from a distressing initial flatness.
Decency is Bernie’s greatest adversary, but Madoff still attempts to craft a tangible rival in Frank Whaley’s Harry Markopolos, a math whiz who suspects something is fishy with the admired Madoff but can’t get anybody to listen. Whaley conveys Harry’s social discomfort and growing frustration, but in keeping with the historical record, Markopolos is a nonfactor in the second half, proving that truth is often a dramatic buzzkill. Madoff also earns some frustration by casting Charles Grodin and Lewis Black in supporting roles and wasting them.
Frequently telling viewers when things are too complicated to be worth understanding, Madoff doesn’t care if you know what market-making is, how option trading is supposed to go or the difference between the SEC and the FCC. It wants you to know that green numbers are positive, red numbers are negative and Bernie Madoff was bad, but enabled. It’s unclear why it takes four hours to reach that simplified, but also unquestioned, truth.
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Frank Whaley, Charles Grodin, Lewis Black
Writer: Ben Robbins
Director: Raymond De Felitta
Airs Wednesday, Feb. 3, and Thursday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.