If Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” met “The Big Short” in a mediocre fashion, you would have something very close to the ABC TV film “Madoff,” produced by the Tisch Undergraduate Chair of Film & TV, Joe Pichirallo. As with those films there is a mixture of glorification and contempt for the financial industry that is undeniably hypocritical. But in this case there is not enough talent at play to cover up for this shortcoming.
The first part of two of “Madoff” premiered last Wednesday at the Skirball Center.
The movie stars Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street trader who was named chairman of NASDAQ before being exposed for the largest Ponzi scheme in American history. Dreyfus aims for the jaded coolness of a Scorsese character, but comes across as apathetic. His manner doesn’t seem to match the crimes he committed.
The supporting characters are played somewhat more successfully. As Madoff’s wife, actress Blythe Danner is fragile from a life devoted to someone who has lied to her for so long. Peter Scolari and Tom Lipinski portray the Madoff sons, both devoted to playing by the strict rules their father has set for them even as he betrays their trust. The only jarring casting error is the role of Harry Markopolos, played by Frank Whaley. Harry is the man who uncovers Madoff’s fraud. Whaley plays the part mostly for laughs, acting as a crazed conspiracy theorist. The point seems to be that only an outsider could catch on to the crime, but this point is made at the expense of having a realistic character.
Like many TV movies, “Madoff” attempts to have a cinematic feel without the budget it requires. The result is a style that feels forced and unprofessional. The movie fails to build tension other than with a loud, thumping soundtrack. The lighting is often either abnormally light or dark in order to establish mood, but this comes across as silly. The editing is sometimes overly rapid, especially in early scenes in which the Madoff’s are vacationing.
The ways in which “Madoff” is derivative of Scorsese’s great 2013 film increase throughout its runtime. There is a very similar style of voice-over narration. There is a core group of loyal and deluded cronies who help the antihero commit crimes. In “Madoff,” there is an attempt at the dark humor of “Wolf,” but this fails under the censors of network television. There is the same basic implication that the lead character is simply the product of a culture that values money above all else.
Condemnations in film and television of the immorality in the financial world, coming from a group of wealthy Hollywood actors, have become very common since the economic crisis in 2008. It seems to impress academy voters a great deal, as evidenced by the awards success of “The Big Short.” But a cheap moralism is no replacement for talent. As a TV film, “Madoff” is a failure.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 1st print edition. Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]