Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Charles Grodin, Frank Whaley, Peter Scolari, Lyne Renee, Daniel Gerroll, Erin Cummings & Michael Rispoli
In December 2008, one of the biggest money-makers on Wall Street was revealed to be a lie. Bernie Madoff quickly became the most hated person in America, having robbed people around the world out of 50 billion dollars. As with any big history-making event, we all knew that a film would eventually be made about Bernie Madoff’s crimes. What’s surprising is that it took so long for this to come out and it arrived in the form of an ABC miniseries. One of two TV projects about Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme (the second being HBO’s WIZARD OF LIES), MADOFF is an interesting, if overlong, retelling of Bernie Madoff’s downfall. Though it suffers from common TV movie tropes, this miniseries still makes for good binge watching.
For decades, Bernard Madoff (Richard Dreyfuss) has built a big reputation on Wall Street. His company is exclusive to the rich and powerful, while always seeming to turn a profit…even in the worst of times. There’s a reason that Madoff’s business sounds too good to be true, because that’s exactly the case. Madoff is one of the biggest swindlers in the world and his victims are global. However, smarmy Bernie has nothing to worry about…until mathematician Harry Markopolis (Frank Whaley) discovers the truth, the FCC starts an investigation, and the country goes into a terrible recession. Madoff slowly begins to feel fear the very real possibility of being uncovered.
Richard Dreyfuss headlines MADOFF as the title criminal. Using narration to put the viewer into Bernie’s frame of mind, Dreyfuss comes off as one of the most unlikable scumbags in the world. I was hooked into watching this smarmy real-life villain go through his day-to-day life. Don’t get me wrong. Bernie Madoff is a horrible person who should rot in prison for eternity, but Dreyfuss’s narration clues us into what Bernie was possibly thinking as he stole fortune after fortune (including from people in his own office). The way in which he rationalizes robbing a secretary of her newly acquired life insurance pay-out is sickening and would only make sense to a greedy sociopath…which is exactly what Bernie Madoff is.
The rest of the cast isn’t quite up to the level of Dreyfuss, but there are notable stand-outs. The biggest one being Frank Whaley as Harry Markopolis. We watch as this frustrated individual tries and tries to get people to take Madoff down and keeps failing at every turn. His frustration is more than relatable towards the FCC’s incompetence and lack of resources. I wish more screen time had been devoted to Markopolis’s frequent attempts to uncover the truth and less to the Madoff family drama. Michael Rispoli is solid as Frank DiPascali, Bernie’s number two. This former SOPRANOS cast member doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who would fit into Wall Street crowd and that’s because he isn’t. Bernie Madoff was a criminal mastermind and this guy was his lackie who took care of forged paperwork and fake information.
The tension that runs through MADOFF’s crime story is somewhat undercut by melodramatic family moments that frequently take the action away from the global Ponzi scheme. Blythe Danner is serviceable enough as Ruth Madoff, though I probably should have felt more sympathy for her character than the performance allowed (she’s mostly unlikable). Tom Lipinski and Danny Deferrari do solid jobs as Bernie’s naïve privileged sons, but their scenes occasionally feel like a soap opera. The worst performance of the miniseries comes in Peter Scolari as Peter Madoff. Scolari’s laughably bad emotional breakdown upon discovering Bernie’s lies feels less like genuine devastation and more like an alien trying to convey an emotional meltdown. It’s easily the worst scene in the entire miniseries.
For all its faults, MADOFF kept me interested in the proceedings by having the feeling of a slowly tightening noose. We all know that Bernie will get caught (or else we wouldn’t have this movie and he’d still be wreaking havoc on Wall Street), but the slow breakdown of the character is sort of fun to watch. MADOFF never asks us to sympathize with this monster, nor does it do enough to glamorize Bernie’s billion-dollar lifestyle. What it does is put the viewer into the consciousness of a heartless criminal and shows us his slow (but sure) downfall, which is a fascinating (and frustrating) story by itself.
Bernie Madoff’s story would have probably benefitted more from a big screen award-contender as opposed to a small screen miniseries. However, this three-hour TV movie is more than worth a watch simply to see America’s biggest case of financial fraud play out in a detailed way. Richard Dreyfuss was the perfect choice to play Bernie Madoff and I can’t imagine Robert De Niro topping him in the upcoming HBO film (though that remains to be seen). While MADOFF suffers from noticeable made-for-TV movie conventions (melodrama, some bad acting), it’s worth a watch all the same.