ABC's Risky 'Madoff' Has its Rewards

Madoff almost makes you root for Bernie Madoff.

Well no: This two-part ABC movie (Wednesday and Thursday, 8 ET/PT, *** out of four) won’t make you think Madoff was innocent — because he wasn’t — or that he doesn’t belong in jail, because he does. But as with any movie about a gleefully unrepentant con man, it does place you squarely on the side of the con, which will amuse some and horrify others. Think of it as Dirty Wall Street Scoundrels, and take it from there.

Granted, Madoff does take it too far. The lighthearted tone works well in Wednesday’s first half, while the con is going well and no one is being appreciably hurt. By Thursday, though, when Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme is exposed and lives are destroyed, the film’s grasp on its tone become less assured — and its efforts to keep our sympathies on Madoff’s side become more taxing.

Still, for much of its somewhat padded length, Madoff works as a comedy of greedy errors, and the credit for that goes to Richard Dreyfuss, who narrates the film and practically twinkles with delight each time he takes in a rich sucker. (He also shows flashes of regret when Madoff takes in a poor sucker.) Some may protest that Dreyfuss makes Madoff too likable, but this faux investor fooled people for more than 40 years, bluffing them into thinking they were buying stocks when the money was actually going straight into Madoff’s bank account.

That takes charm, though as the movie points out, it also takes a financial system stripped of most controls by regulatory agencies that were either overtaxed, incompetent or corrupt. Indeed, some of the most humorous and painful moments in the movie are provided by Dreyfuss’ narrated asides, as he’s shocked at the failure of the banks or the SEC to catch on, when catching him would have been incredibly easy.

Clearly, this is a good story. In fact, it's so good, HBO is making its own movie with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in lead roles played here by Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner, in a nicely nuanced performance as Madoff’s wife, Ruth.

It’s also, unlike most financial scandals and scams, a fairly simple story to explain — which Madoff does through its wry narration. Madoff bilks people, not by pitching his investment fund, but by making them think it's too exclusive for them. He takes their money and cooks the books to show profits that are really coming from interest or new investors. And as long as no one wants their money back, it all works.

And as long as the film sticks to the scheme, it works as well. It’s less successful when it digs into Madoff’s personal life, or when it begins to search for broader meaning, particularly in a heavy-handed comparison between Madoff and the investment banks that caused the subprime mortgage crisis.  Even so, in these heady days when the broadcast networks are suddenly taking risks, consider this return to the miniseries format one more risky investment that pays off.

That’s something Bernie Madoff might even appreciate.