Greed Steve Coogan

Greed bites off more than it can chew

Frequent collaborators Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom re-team for an ambitious, overstuffed satire of capitalism and the 1%.

Esteemed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has reteamed with Steve Coogan for a new satirical effort, Greed. Coogan, sporting teeth that are too white and too big, plays Sir Richard McCreadie (enunciated to sound like McGreedy), a billionaire tycoon who made his fortune in the textile and clothing industries. As the film opens, we are on the eve of his massive 60th birthday bash, an exclusive, Gladiator-inspired event on a Greek Island. 

Told primarily by the wimpish Nick (David Mitchell), a journalist hired to write a fluffy biography, the film integrates flashbacks and tangents to make sense of McCreadie’s rise to fame and fortune. In the new tradition of dark capitalist crisis films like The Big Short and The Laundromat, this humiliating movie focused on the world’s elite uses comedy to show how a select group of callous would-be gods stole, pilfered and inherited their indecent fortunes.

Michael Winterbottom, best known these days for his The Trip films (also starring Steve Coogan), tends to bite off a little more than he can chew. His films, at their worst, tend to be unruly and unfocused, bungled by one idea too many. Greed is, unfortunately, one of those films. Despite its biting satire, big ideas and obliterating one-liners, the story pulls in one too many directions and feels bloated rather than precise.

It becomes readily apparent that Winterbottom is less interested in the absurdities of greed as he is with the people displaced and exploited to enrich the hyper-wealthy. As much as the film zeroes in on McCreadie’s cost-saving deals, it brings us into the thick of Sri Lankan textile factories where workers, primarily women, slave 12 to 14 hours a day for meagre pay. 

The other side-story, about Syrian refugees who have settled on a public beach near the party headquarters, similarly explores the social, cultural and wealth disparity of the contemporary world — particularly how the wealthy not only flex their power but abuse it as well. The deals, rather than the work of ingenious business people, are painted as the work of abject and immoral gamblers. McCreadie, while absurdly over-the-top, is portrayed as both entirely human and irredeemable. He’s not given his grand moment of redemption — no one in that upscale and cut-off world of the billionaire elite is. 

Other recurring storylines include Gladiator motifs (specifically Ridley Scott’s movie), Greek tragedy and a reality TV program. They are all fascinating and interwoven into the whole, but in the film’s running time, they do end up feeling a bit much.

The reality program that sees the refugees almost evacuated from the beach (illegally and all in service of a better view for the wealthy guests) is channelled ironically through the POV of a crying reality TV actress. She is upset because of a baby’s scream and whines that the refugees are being abused. But her empathy turns immediately inward as she internalizes their suffering as her own: the pain of having to witness the abuse of refugees becomes, somehow, worse than their actual plight. After her brief emotional outburst and with the refugees out of sight, out of mind, as far as she’s concerned the problem resolves itself, and she can focus once again on her dramatic, romantic adventures.

The film is clever and funny. The cast, led by Steve Coogan, are all great. Isla Fisher and Shirley Henderson, in particular, steal nearly every scene. The movie’s talent is undeniable, and it has its share of belly-laughs. Rather than merely a surface-level farce, each character is imbued with compelling (albeit reprehensible) motives. Rather than broadly sketched cartoons to paint the wealthy as evil and the poor as noble, the characters feel like real people, exaggerated but human.

One can almost argue that the constant narrative jumping around and the multiple storylines do something to evoke the chaos of modern life. How being permanently logged on inundates us constantly with thousands of images and stories that simultaneously celebrate wealth and hand-wringing about a variety of injustices. The overall effect of living in a society like ours is a kind of numbness. It becomes so that merely thinking or posting about political convictions has replaced political action. 

It’s a shame though that this technique doesn’t quite work. The movie feels too crowded with ideas to take off. There are also many lulls in momentum, and any given storyline that you might be taken by will not occupy enough screentime to satisfy your interest. Certainly, Greed still has a lot to offer, but it’s mostly disappointing in how it doesn’t live up to the strength of its ideas or ambition. ■

Greed, starring Steve Coogan, is in Montreal theatres Friday, March 6. Watch the trailer below.

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Greed starring Steve Coogan