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The Bernie Madoff miniseries is a mess, but Richard Dreyfuss is stellar in it

ABC's Madoff is a bit overheated otherwise.

Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner star in Madoff.
Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner star in Madoff.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Madoff, ABC's retelling of the Bernie Madoff saga, feels like a time traveler from 1991, when ripped-from-the-headlines miniseries were a constant for network TV rather than the curiosity they might seem to be today.



It also arrives with some degree of star power. Richard Dreyfuss, an Academy Award winner, plays Madoff himself, while Blythe Danner plays his wife, Ruth. Established character actors Peter Scolari and Charles Grodin play pivotal smaller roles. The rest of the cast is full of faces you'll probably recognize from other movies and TV shows, even if you don't know the names attached to them.

Madoff even boasts a reasonable approximation of big-screen pizzazz, thanks to the overbearing (but flashy) direction of indie film auteur Raymond De Felitta, along with a script by Ben Robbins that is vaguely reminiscent of The Wolf of Wall Street. Indeed, Madoff regularly pauses the action to explain things in voiceover — or, occasionally, directly to the camera.

But the project is also a bit of a mess. It feels like De Felitta never stops moving his camera, even when simply sitting still might do. And Robbins's script is filled with scenes where characters have largely inconsequential conversations about, say, where their kids go to school. I suppose these scenes are there to flesh out the world of high finance and illustrate how little Madoff feels like he fits in, but instead they just seem to be killing time.

So, overall, Madoff isn't really worth your time — but for one thing.

Richard Dreyfuss is stellar

Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff
Richard Dreyfuss makes Bernie Madoff entertaining to watch, even as he's doing horrible things.

Dreyfuss is one of the few actors to emerge from that great swath of new American male stars who came up in the '60s and '70s and then faded from the spotlight. Certainly, most actors of his generation have stepped into supporting roles or started playing grandfathers or what have you, but Dreyfuss appears to have sidestepped even that.

This is partially because the kinds of characters Dreyfuss plays best — motormouthed guys who might have seemed average but are particularly skilled at talking their way into and out of trouble — don't crop up as often for older fellows. Dreyfuss occasionally tried to play avuncular father figures in the '90s and 2000s, but he's always been a touch too prickly for that.

Consequently, Madoff is exactly the role for him. He's a guy who got away with a seemingly mind-boggling theft, entirely because he was so good at pretending he knew more than other people. The best swindlers never let you see them sweat, even as they're erupting in buckets of perspiration on the inside, and that's the kind of role Dreyfuss can play to a T.

In order for Madoff to work, you have to want Bernie Madoff to succeed, at least a little bit. Dreyfuss manages the tricky feat of making Madoff's escapades seem like goofy fun, while simultaneously allowing the tone to shift to something more somber as Madoff's downfall begins and many of his clients are losing everything.

Dreyfuss never loses sight of who Madoff is, but he also never lets us forget the human toll of the situation — not to mention the fact that it's a little ridiculous how Madoff became a major fall guy for an economic catastrophe he didn't really play any part in.

If you're going to watch just one scene of Madoff — and, really, that's probably all you should watch — I would consider tuning in to the midpoint of the second installment, which is when Madoff reveals to his family the extent of his crimes. It's the one scene when everything stands still for a moment, when the characters can breathe. It's just great actors, shouting at each other in living Technicolor.

There are plenty of problems with Madoff — I haven't mentioned the overused musical score, which burbles along endlessly beneath almost every scene — but at the very least, it's worth tuning in to the miniseries for five or 10 minutes to watch a great actor show off what made him so great in the first place.

Madoff airs Wednesday, February 3, and Thursday, February 4, at 8 pm Eastern on ABC.