Despite jumping around genres with seemingly prolific ease, writer/director Michael Winterbottom seems to always return to dark comedy and satire, a genre he visits again in his newest film, Greed. Starring his oft collaborator Steve Coogan as an insanely rich and even more insanely obnoxious fashion magnate, Greed skewers everything in sight, from the fashion industry to socialites to tax havens. But, despite the targets being so low and so big, Greed somehow still misses the mark, as it tries to do—and say—a bit too much.
Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, a bastion of capitalism, born into money but then forced to build it all up again when his father dies and he’s left with nothing. Already instilled with a deep narcissism and sense of entitlement, McCreadie doesn’t consider poverty an option (or that he deserves such an ordinary fate), so he makes a life and a fortune out of fast-talking, eventually amassing fortune and debt at a seemingly bizarre rate. We first meet him as he is celebrating the pinnacle of his success, having cut himself an enormous check from the profits of his company. We come back to him a few years later as he is preparing to throw a lavish and garish 60th birthday party for himself on the Greek island of Mykanos. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how McCreadie gets here, as we figure out that he’s more swindler than businessman and he’s as repellant a human being as he is a cunning conman. He’s abusive and clueless to everyone around him, employees and family members alike, with not a single person willing, capable or courageous enough to stand up to him.
The “emperor has no clothes” setup is ripe for the taking, and we are just drooling to see the Coogan/Winterbottom magic kick into high gear, but it never does. While Coogan is, as always, brilliant at showcasing his character’s pomposity and lack of self-awareness, there is too much of an edge to his performance that comes off as heavy and unappealing. But maybe that’s the point. It’s hard to tell in this film, as it takes so many hard turns that you do get a little lost—or at least really confused.
Eventually, we see some full-blown satire finally arrive, especially around a plot involving Syrian refugees who are camping on the public beach next door to the party, whom McCreadie wants to get rid of, of course, because, I mean, who wants to look out onto poor refugees while dancing and drinking champagne? But ultimately it’s a bit too little, too late. As biting and effective as this storyline is (or should be), it’s only given limited attention, since Winterbottom has so many different fish to fry.
The tip of Winterbottom’s spear is reserved for a skewering of the fashion industry and its use of sweatshops in countries like Sri Lanka. The blistering commentary on the cruelty of ruthless capitalism and white privilege is not subtle, and the film takes a dark turn about three quarters of the way through that, intentionally or not, takes the air out of what was left of the comedy.
Winterbottom sprinkles heavy doses of Shakespearean and Greek tragedy references in the script, and if these had landed a bit better, Greed might have worked much more as it was intended. However, the multitude of targets he tries to hit obfuscates the intent. There is one of many subplots involving McCreadie’s angry and oft-ignored son, Finn, played by Asa Butterfield, that ends up going nowhere.
Butterfield is just one of many actors who deftly support Coogan, including Isla Fisher, David Mitchell and Sophie Cookson, all of whom are game and give it their all. There are some great cameos as well, but the bloated and overreaching script fails all of them, as it does the audience.
Winterbottom fought mightily to keep a series of cards that play at the end of the film, which spell out facts and figures about the slavery-like disparities between the top and the bottom in the fashion industry. It belies and puts a point on the increasingly angry tone of the film. Winterbottom hopes to awaken every viewer’s social conscience with Greed, which is a noble and certainly warranted endeavor, it’s just unfortunate that the final product leaves you more confused than committed.
Sony Pictures Classics will release Greed on February 21, 2020.