Film Review: Greed

Steve Coogan Fiddles While Rome Burns In Broad Satire

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Celebrated British director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People) reunites with noted British comedian Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge, Around the World in 80 Days, Hamlet 2) for another bitingly witty outing. After their work together in the indelible comedies Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, expectations might be high—higher, unfortunately, than the broadly seriocomic Greed can really match.

Greed races out of the gate, establishing itself immediately as a rapid-fire send-up of modern-day capitalism and the predatory billionaire class that fuels it. Our central representative here is Sir Richard McCreadie (Coogan), an Irish immigrant to England known to those who sing his praises as “The Monet of Money” and to his detractors as “Greedy” McCreadie. Over the course of his go-go life, McCreadie has made billions as the king of British fashion with trendy shops on every High Street in England. Now, on the eve of his 60th birthday, he’s throwing himself the party to end all parties, a full-on Roman-style bacchanalia on the Greek island of Mykonos. Celebrities are flying in from all over the world. There will be a gladiatorial contest on Saturday night and “Coldplay on the beach Sunday morning.”

Among the guests is a nervous writer named Nick (David Michell from “Peepshow” and “That Mitchell and Webb Look”) who’s been tasked with compiling a laudatory biography of the business mogul. In the weeks leading up to the party, Nick has been interviewing McCreadie’s friends and colleagues (far more of the latter than the former). McCreadie’s domineering mother (Shirley Henderson) insists he’s really “a very shy boy. He just hides it with all his bluster.” But as we catch snippets of McCreadie’s past life unfolding in quickly-edited flashback, we realize he’s not a very nice guy. He’s no business genius, either. He’s just a bullying jerk. And a gambler. He knows nothing about fashion. He built his empire on discount clothing brands—stealing designs from other retailers and browbeating suppliers into giving him bargain basement prices. Over the years he’s driven dozens of companies into bankruptcy, but not without diverting millions into his own pocket. In fact, he’s currently the subject of a Parliament investigation into his questionable finances.

While Nick mulls over what to do with the mountains of unflattering information he’s gathered, preparations for McCreadie’s ridiculously lavish soiree continue apace. A full-sized Roman colosseum is being constructed—although it’s falling behind schedule thanks to McCreadie’s steady insistence on never paying anyone a fair wage. Also, thanks to that government investigation, a lot of the celebrity guests (all of whom were going to be paid anyway) are dropping out. Adding to the chaos are the various members of McCreadie’s family and staff. Sir Richard’s much younger ex-wife (Isla Fisher) is there, but he’s already replaced her with an even younger model (Shanina Shaik). His kids are on hand, but daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson) is distracted filming her heavily scripted “reality” show “The Young, the Rich and the Beautiful,” and youngest son Finn (Asa Butterfield) is spending a worrying amount of time reading about Oedipus. Also, there’s the problem of some poor, Syrian refugees camping out on the beach—which does
nothing for the million dollar views from McCreadie’s villa.

Greed doesn’t have anything particularly penetrating to say about rich people: They’re jerks, they exploit poor people and most of them got where they are not by hard work and superior ideas, but by bending the rules, breaking the law and buying politicians. Over the years, Coogan has more or less cornered the market on this exact kind of self-serving asshole. But there aren’t nearly as many cringe-inducing layers to capitalist vulture Richard McCreadie as there are to inept broadcaster Alan Partridge (Coogan’s signature character).

Winterbottom’s screenplay veers between jokey jabs about vapid rich folks and a sort of broadside docudrama on the way in which the 1 percent shirk civic responsibility, avoid taxes and consider the world their own personal piggy bank. The metaphors he employs aren’t exactly subtle. (The rich treat the working class like slaves. … So all the people working this Roman empire-themed birthday party are
literally dressed like slaves.)

Like culottes and a poncho, the mix of satirical humor and self-serious lecture isn’t always the best combination. (Adam McKay did it better in his occasionally condescending dramedy
The Big Short.) Still, there are definite moments of pointed humor. Lily weeps over her boyfriend off camera—not because they’re breaking up, but because, as she puts it, “I have to stay in character.” And Winterbottom’s preachy narrative definitely finds a laser focus, in the end, on the worldwide fashion industry’s pervasive exploitation of third-world labor. He’s on the money, of course. But the target of the film’s humor and outrage is just too broad. We don’t need a comedy to tell us the Kardashians are stupid. Or a drama to tell us that billionaires don’t care about the 99 percent. Most of us are already painfully aware.
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