There’s something particularly compelling, and nerve-racking, about watching an elaborate liar squirm—Matt Damon in The Informant!, Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass, and, in the new ABC mini-series Madoff, Richard Dreyfuss as one of the grandest liars of the 21st century, Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, monster of New York finance and, probably, sociopath. Madoff, which runs in two parts on back-to-back nights starting February 3, doesn’t delve too deeply into this ghoul’s psychology, but Dreyfuss sniffs him out anyway, giving a mesmerizing, slyly funny performance that’s his best work in ages.
Written by Ben Robbins and directed by Raymond De Felitta, Madoff is a pretty straightforward major-network mini-series, introducing us to Madoff, his family, his crime, and his comeuppance. Introductions would be all we got if it wasn’t for Dreyfuss (and Blythe Danner, as Ruth Madoff), who draws a shifty, fascinating portrait of a man whose overt generosity and largesse masks a howling void—of actual money, yes, but more crucially of conscience. Madoff’s relationship with his wife is self-serving, she tending the fires of his Great Man airs, he using her to prove to himself that his love of family is what rescues him from moral oblivion. Trouble is, he’s lying to her (the mini-series doesn’t really get into the theory that Ruth was complicit in the scheme), and he’s often terrible to his sons, Mark and Andrew, two ambitious young men straining in the shadow of their father, but kept out of his innermost circle to protect the big lie around which their lives orbit.
Madoff delineates the fall of the house of Bernie with the appropriate grimness—from the outset, every should-be pleasant family occasion is tinged with rot and unease. Dreyfuss plays this tension perfectly, capturing the narcissist's wandering attention; dark, distracted clouds passing across the sun. Madoff takes pride in his deceptions, a fact plainly stated in the mini-series’s overused voice-over (leave that to Mr. Scorsese, folks), but also shrewdly conveyed in Dreyfuss’s rattish smirks and furrowing eyebrows. Dreyfuss may not look or sound exactly like Madoff, but he gets to the essence of a huckster turned reckless and self-satisfied by improbable success.
Of course, a Ponzi scheme will always end in disaster, sucking up all the money it can before it collapses in on itself, but you get the sense watchingMadoff, particularly Dreyfuss’s performance, that if Madoff had played it just a little safer, preyed on people a bit more judiciously, maybe he could have weathered the financial meltdown of 2008, when panic had many of Madoff’s duped clients calling in their chits. Or, maybe not. Madoff’s reckoning is a bit hurried in Madoff, which is frustratingly vague about establishing a timeline, but we do nonetheless feel its inevitability, even if we don’t learn much about the mechanics of the con.
Madoff succeeds where it counts, at least: it gets great stuff out of Dreyfuss, and from Danner, who gives Ruth a boozy tragicomedy that nicely offsets Madoff’s wheezy villainy. Their work is probably enough to distinguish this early entry from 2016’s other, perhaps more anticipated Bernie Madoff TV movie, The Wizard of Lies, the prestige-ier HBO project from director Barry Levinson, starring Robert De Niro as Bernie and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth. (Maybe these four actors could play this doomed couple in repertory somewhere, trading off partners on alternating nights. We’d all go see that at, say, the Long Wharf, wouldn’t we?) Having watched Madoff, I don’t feel I know much more about this American bête noire than I did before. But it’s a pleasure to see Richard Dreyfuss back at his game, weaselly and sharp as ever.