Greed plays to Steve Coogan’s strengths. He is an actor able to embody repellent characters but layer them with enough charm that an audience will keep watching and even begrudgingly like even the complete bastards he sometimes plays. And so it is with Greed, Michael Winterbottom’s latest, a misfire in which Coogan soars as billionaire jerk Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie even as the film flails around him in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to satirize the super-rich while calling attention to the injustices built into the garment industry.
This is Greedy McCreadie: He’s the type of person spending millions to throw himself a 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos with a guest list that includes plenty of celebrities to reflect their stardust back at him and an ancient Roman gladiator theme (complete with lion). He’s the kind of guy who upon seeing a group of Greek refugees on the beach has the police remove lest they disturb his guests’ view with their… poverty. He is someone who has built his own wealth partially by dodging taxes in Monaco but mostly by hardball bargaining with the owners of Sri Lankan sweatshops who provide the clothing for his stores. He is a vain man with blinding white teeth, who traded in his wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) for Naomi (Shanina Shaik), a girl young enough to be his daughter. Oh, and he’s such a genius businessman that as revealed through the time-shifting narrative, he has presided over serial bankruptcies of once high-flying fashion chains (gee, that scenario is somehow so familiar).
So far, so much wretched excess. Coogan knocks it out of the park, at once absolutely repulsive yet somehow oddly likeable. Winterbottom chose well in casting Jamie Blackley as Greedy’s younger self, an avaricious brat even at a tender age. Fisher is an apt match for Coogan, playing Samantha as someone who embraces her greed with cheerful amorality. The sun-drenched Mykonos setting perfectly encapsulates the rewards that accrue to those who give no thought to the rest of the world in their full embrace of the greed-is-good ethos. And if a soundtrack that includes The Flying Lizards’ “Money (That’s What I Want)” and ABBA’s “Money Money Money” is sometimes a little on the nose, it is apt.
Greed gets that much right, but it all falls apart in the film’s storytelling. Winterbottom is attempting to satirize the super-rich, but the problem is the lives so breathlessly reported by the tabloids already resemble satire. How do you exaggerate the already exaggerated?
By focusing on Greedy McCreadie Winterbottom is obscuring his own point. He wants to say something about the exploitation of labor by people like Greedy whose negotiations with sweatshop owners drive down his price , but also the conditions and pay under which the people who actually make the clothing he sells work. Even when his party manager Amanda (Dinita Gohil) relates a heartfelt story of a tragedy that rose out of one of Greedy’s deals, it feels at a remove. A drama about garment workers and their travails may not as be as sexy as a quasi-comedy about a larger-than-life lowlife (but nevertheless captivating) billionaire, but to make a story about their exploitation, it really ought to be told through their eyes. Otherwise, the real message of Greed is clear. The world belongs to people like Greedy McCreadie. The rest of us are bit players in their drama. –Pam Grady