Some depth and gravitas are usually necessary for an effective satire, but Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed” does not have either of them. While it is occasionally amusing as its greedy rotten hero’s misguided plan for whitewashing his public disgrace is gradually gone wrong along the story, the movie simply makes a superficial fun of him and other cardboard characters without much substance except its obligatory messages on greed and exploitation in global scale, and that famous quote from E.M. Forster’s certain famous novel, which appears at the beginning and end of the film, feels rather hollow without much impact for us.
The hero in question is Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, a British fashion mogul who, according to Wikipedia, is loosely based on Arcadia Group chairman Philip Green. His 60th birthday is coming, and McCreadie is going to hold a big celebratory party on the Greek island of Mykonos, but things do not go that well from the beginning. Because of his disastrous public testimony in front of a parliament select committee investigating his shady business activities, many celebrities already declined to attend the party, and a small amphitheater for entertaining his guests has not been completed yet due to the sloppy job of a builder and workers hired by him.
While surely annoyed by these and many other small and big problems, McCreadie still feels confident about his party, and he also hires Nick (David Mitchell), a nerdy guy who is going to ghostwrite an autobiography to reinforce his public image as a savvy self-made business man. Throughout the film, we see Nick meeting various people ranging from McCreadie’s mother and his old school friend to his former business partner and a financial expert, and they all surely have something to tell to Nick.
However, as he listens to many different interviewees, Nick comes to realize what a daunting task it is to present McCreadie as an admirable business figure. While McCreadie did hurl himself into fashion retail business even before entering adulthood, that was mainly because he left his privileged private school for causing lots of troubles there, and he had already shown those recognizable streaks of an amoral and opportunistic huckster. Once he saw that his cocky bullying tactics worked pretty well for him, he went all the way without looking back at all, and it did not take much time for him to become one of the most prominent persons in the fashion retail business in London.
Not so surprisingly, McCreadie has frequently mistreated numerous people working under him. At one point, one of his former employees recounts when she had to endure cruel verbal abuses from McCreadie just because she did not handle a business deal well for him, and she still feels bitter about him. When Nick visits a sweatshop in Sri Lanka which has manufactured those expensive clothes for McCreadie’s fashion company, he comes to learn more exploitative sides of McCreadie’s business empire, and he accordingly becomes more conflicted about his current task.
Above all, McCreadie is not a very good businessman at all. Many of his private enterprises ended up failing spectacularly with bankruptcy and debts, and the financial expert explains Nick on how McCreadie has gotten richer despite these business failures. Like Donald J. Trump, he is pretty good at playing a successful businessman as boldly brandishing his expensive and luxurious lifestyle in front of others, and we hear about how he has thoroughly ruined his current fashion company while constantly enriching him and his family more and more via a number of dubious business dealings.
His family members do not have any problem with that at all as indulging themselves in each own way. While his mother Margaret (Shirley Henderson) is proud of her son as before, his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) is still connected with him as the official CEO of his fashion company who recently received a huge bonus for her, uh, contribution to the company, and she does not mind at all about him living with a younger trophy wife at present. In case of his second son Finn (Asa Butterfield), he clearly has some Oedipal issue, but he is as self-absorbed as his older sister Lily (Sophie Cookson), who is mostly occupied with shooting her reality TV show along with her current boyfriend on the island.
Winterbottom’s screenplay, which includes some contribution from Sean Gray according to the end credits of the film, also adds other different story elements including a bunch of Syrian refugees forced to work for McCreadie and a supposedly dull and passive lion which instantly reminded me of Chekhov’s gun right from its very first appearance, but it feels uneven and unfocused as trying to juggle too many things at once. As a result, the movie comes to lose its comic momentum more as trudging toward to its predictable finale which will not surprise you much, and we come to observe its unlikable hero’s hubris and folly from the distance without much care or attention.
The performers try to lift the materials given to them as much as they can. Steve Coogan, who is no stranger to playing an obnoxious jerk willfully oblivious to harmful effects on others around him, brings some acidic wit and humor to several key scenes in the film, but he is mostly limited by thin characterization and weak narrative, and the same thing can be said about the other notable cast members in the film including Shirley Henderson, Isla Fisher, and Asa Butterfield, who is totally wasted in his functional role.
Although it feels relevant in the ongoing Trump era, “Greed” is not entirely without amusement and laughs, but it is ultimately disappointing because of several glaring weak points including its scattershot storytelling approach. To be frank with you, Winterbottom and Coogan were more successful in better comedy films such as “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” (2005) and “The Trip” (2010), and you will surely have a much more enjoyable time with them.