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Dreyfuss is a real magician in ABC's entertaining "Madoff"

 

It isn’t nearly as riveting or as creative as one of my favorite feature films of the year, “The Big Short.”

But there are a lot worse ways to invest four hours than watching the two-part ABC miniseries with a greedy financial story line, “Madoff.”

The miniseries, which airs at 8 tonight and Thursday on Channel 7, has one big thing going for it.

I’m talking about the performance of Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff, the scoundrel who stole $50 billion from mostly rich people who didn’t see through the psychology of his con.

I was startled last month when ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee said Dreyfuss’ performance was a “real surprise.”

After all, Dreyfuss is an Oscar-winning actor.

He is the primary reason to invest two nights on “Madoff,” which has an 8 p.m. start time that may be a tough sell.

It isn’t any surprise that Dreyfuss would relish a role like Madoff, a charlatan whose inner thoughts about how you manipulate the wealthy as well as the less fortunate are narrated by the actor in character.

ABC said the series is “inspired” by the reporting of ABC News correspondent Brian Ross, who wrote the book “The Madoff Chronicles.” It has beaten an upcoming HBO movie on Madoff, “Wizard of Lies,” starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer to the bell.

It is unclear how scriptwriter Ben Robbins got inside Madoff’s head as easily as Dreyfuss gets inside his often tortured character.

For all I know, he might have invented Madoff’s often dryly humorous thoughts in the same way that Madoff devised the Ponzi scheme that pleased investors for years until the market crashed, they all wanted to redeem their portfolio, and discovered Madoff was $50 billion short and hadn’t bought one stock with their money.

The miniseries could be subtitled “The Art of the Steal” as Madoff explains how easily the rich can be manipulated in search of greater riches.

“Present it as exclusive,” says Madoff. “Nothing on earth makes people want it more than saying you can’t have it.”

Madoff refers to himself as “Magician,” and adds “a good magician never reveals his secrets.”

It is no longer a secret how difficult it can be for the understaffed Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to see through fraudulent schemes.

The SEC looks like Keystone Cops as its staffers don’t investigate the simplest details that would have caught Madoff years before he defrauded the wealthy, celebrities, charities and some small investors out of their money.

“Madoff” has a good share of humor but I would have preferred even more in telling the tale.

Madoff comes off as a human being without a conscience, who stole from charities and his own secretary. The one positive thing you can say about him is that he tried to shield his wife, sons and brother from the damage, often irritating them in the process.

The Madoff family had some dinners straight out of “Blue Bloods,” with investing instead of police work the family business.

Dreyfuss is given some solid support from the always appealing Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth; Tom Lipinski as the disillusioned son Mark; Danny Deferrari as the cancer-stricken son Andrew; Frank Whaley as the frustrated math whiz who found 31 red flags and figured out that Madoff was a fraud years before the SEC; and Michael Rispoli as Madoff’s partner in crime. Peter Scolari, best known for comedic roles starting with “Bosom Buddies,” also does strong work playing against type as Peter Madoff, Bernie’s guilt-ridden brother who frequently went searching for spiritual guidance.

Just as effective are the cameos at the end from what appear to be some of the real people that Madoff conned.

If they’re not real people, they are straight out of central casting and should get more acting gigs immediately.

Of course, “Madoff” can make one question what is real and what isn’t.

I’m not sure how much is invented in the script, but one thing is clear: Dreyfuss turns out to be the real magician in making a film with so much financial detail so often entertaining.

But I suppose that really should be about as surprising as learning that there are no guarantees when you play in the stock market.

apergament@buffnews.com

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