September 28, 2020

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Capitalism comedy stingy with satire

Forget what Gordon Gekko said; in this case, Greed is not good

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/3/2020 (204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A misfiring satire on the super-rich, Greed is one of those movies that you keep thinking ought to be better than it is. There’s talent here: the uneven but often interesting British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Trip television series and movies), some scripting help from Veep writer Sean Gray and a cast that includes comedians Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher and David Mitchell.

Somehow this talented team never gets it together, which is unfortunate because it’s not just that Greed ought to be better. In these fraught days, it needs to be better. At a time when we could use a good takedown of a megalomaniac fashion mogul with an island compound — see recent Free Press headlines — this fictional take on the moral grotesqueries of global wealth inequality offers a few offhand laughs but few new insights.

Sir Richard McCreadie (played by Coogan with blinding dental veneers) is a British fast-fashion tycoon whose nasty business practices have earned him the nickname "Greedy McCreadie." His aggressive bullying and crass charm have served his bottom line, but a parliamentary inquiry has just branded him "the unacceptable face of capitalism."

Deciding that his public image needs polishing, Sir Richard plans a Gladiator-themed 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos. Yes, this billionaire is so delusional and insulated he can’t see that imperial togas for the guests, mandatory slave outfits for the staff and a plywood replica of the Colosseum won’t actually help his reputation. The excess is rendered even more obscene by the contrast with a Syrian refugee encampment on the nearby beach, which Sir Richard thinks is spoiling his view.

The fall-of-Rome party theme also includes Clarence the lion, who looks kind of tired and moth-eaten but nevertheless hangs around the narrative like Chekhov’s gun.

Rome if you want to: Steve Coogan in Greed. (Amelia Troubridge / Sony Pictures Classics)

Rome if you want to: Steve Coogan in Greed. (Amelia Troubridge / Sony Pictures Classics)

Coogan (who’s made several films with Winterbottom) is best when he’s awful, and as the egocentric, ethically evasive, emotionally callous Sir Richard, he’s not quite awful enough.

Sir Richard is surrounded by friends and family members who often seem more like a paid entourage. Daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson) is currently starring in a Kardashian-style reality TV series and has lost the ability to feel genuine emotion, and angry, aggrieved son Finn (Asa Butterfield) is absolutely boiling with genuine emotion, all of it bad. The one person who might actually love Sir Richard is his first wife, Samantha (Fisher).

Sir Richard’s authorized biographer, Nick (Mitchell), wanders about, filled with self-loathing and a vague sense of liberal guilt. And there’s Sir Richard’s personal assistant, Amanda (Dinita Gohil), whose family has a connection to the Sri Lankan sweatshops where her boss’s ruthless bottom line drives impossible quotas and unsafe working conditions.

Winterbottom and the cast do get some casual humour out of Rich People Issues, as when Sir Richard pays British singer James Blunt 75,000 pounds to perform just one song. ("But then, he’s only got the one song," as Samantha points out.)

And there’s the less hilarious stuff: asset stripping, tax avoidance, exploitative working conditions in the developing world. We watch as a morose Scottish financial reporter explains how Sir Richard uses other people’s money to buy up companies, suck out anything of value for himself and then decamp, leaving bankruptcies and layoffs.

Winterbottom seems unsure whether to go for sharp satire, weighty moral tragedy or hard-hitting docudrama. With flat characters, an undeveloped script and only sporadic comedy, we’re left in an in-between place where it feels as if nothing is at stake and nothing can be done.

Or maybe that’s just the inevitable ennui of late capitalism.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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