Some have dubbed the man “the da Vinci of deals” and “the Monet of money.” Some have referred to this public figure by more tabloid-friendly handles like “Sir Shifty.” Others simply call him “a bottom feeder” and “a tapeworm.” Whether people think he’s the ultimate capitalism success story or simply a complete scumbag — to be fair, the two categories are anything but mutually exclusive — they are likely to have an opinion on retail magnate Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan, all teeth and tan). Having conned his way through prep school as a card shark and carny-barkered a cheap-clothing empire into existence, he’s the sort of dodgy “self-made” billionaire that attracts admiration, envy, headlines, ethics-committee hearings, and media shitstorms. Imagine an unholy amalgamation of the worst aspects of Richard Branson, Sir Philip Green, and H&M chairman Stefan Persson. That’s the self-nicknamed “Greedy McCreadie.”
He also radiates patrician entitlement, which is why, on the eve of his 60th birthday, McCreadie has taken over a Greek island in order to stage a lavish Gladiator-themed party. Most of his family and all of his famous friends are invited (Leo, unfortunately, is a no; Rihanna is a maybe; Keith Richards is a yes, though he’s stuck at customs). Numerous hangers-on, employees, his new twentysomething girlfriend, his ex-wife (Isla Fisher), his official biographer (David Mitchell), a reality-TV crew and a rather docile lion will also be in attendance. It should be the sort of indulgent shindig that McCreadie feels that he’s earned. If only everyone wasn’t so bloody incompetent. And those pesky refugees weren’t camping out on his private beach and ruining the view. …
This is the one-percent-of-the-one-percent world that Greed drops audiences into, a place where conspicuous consumption meets bread-and-circuses 2.0, and the lifestyles of the rich and toxic could not seem more luxurious or ridiculous. McCreadie is the moral vacuum at the center of writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s takedown of today’s blithely destructive billion-dollar babies. And as portrayed by Coogan, he becomes the kind of huffy, status-conscious, monstrous male that the British comedian has specialized in for decades. He’s a recognizable and appropriately familiar caricature, McCreadie. So are the vapid scions, the self-loathing lackeys and scribes, the Machiavellian elderly mother, the past and present trophy partners, and the displaced immigrants conveniently used as contrasts to the decadent partygoers.
Which is part of the problem: We’ve certainly seen these types before, and skewered with far more sharpness, insight, and wit. Greed wants to remind us that the insanely rich are not like you and me; it’s also proof that satire usually works better when you use a scalpel and not a sledgehammer. There’s a broadness to the antics of McCreadie and his kin, as well as the desperate scurrying of those trying to curry favor with them or avoid their wrath, that somehow registers as both over-the-top and tame compared with the real thing. Mocking the manufactured drama of a Kardashian-style TV show devoted to McCreadie’s debutante daughter (Sophie Cookson) feels too lazy by half. The hypocrisy of celebrities who talk up causes then happily endorse clothing lines that use sweatshops is treated as little more than a running joke. Even when the arrows hit their targets, they rarely arrive with enough impact to break the skin. It’s a half-hearted exercise in full-throated outrage.
Winterbottom saves his healthy reserve of anger for the more serious sections involving Mitchell’s writer, a Boswell who acts as the audience’s surrogate and witness to the bad behavior on display. He’s also dispatched to various “factories” in Sri Lanka to gather testimonies to McCreadie’s greatness, all of which present the gritty reality of how this titan of retail made his fortune. These sections also tie in the story of Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a worker at the resort. She, too, has a connection to this industry that runs from High Street to high fashion, one that might strike a more humanistic note if it wasn’t so clearly being treated as the equivalent of a slide in a PowerPoint presentation. Winterbottom has a long history as a socially conscious filmmaker, and a knack for incorporating (and often beautifully blurring the lines of) IRL elements in his fictional narratives. Here, he wants his farce to reverberate with real-world inequities and blatantly rigged systems. The chuckles at the expense of the cloistered, the self-involved, the stupid, and the offensively wealthy are supposed to stick in your throat. There are consequences to their follies.
So, yes, you’ll get your pilgrim’s progress of a privileged prick, and some lovely comic turns by Coogan, Mitchell (Peep Show fans will thrill to his every beaten-down–beta line reading), and Shirley Henderson, as McCreadie’s cantankerous Irish ma. You’ll get the chance to feel that while they may have gained the world, at least you still have your soul. There is pleasure in clocking the clever allusions to the fall of the Roman empire and knowing what Chekhov said about putting a predatory jungle cat on the mantle in Act One still rings true. (Gun, lion, whatever.) Then, as a bonus, you’ll get a coda that throws a number of statistics about how few own so much, how many work for pennies, and how making and buying a garment creates a global economic butterfly effect. E.M. Forster’s epigram that opens the film — “Only connect …” — gets trotted out one more time as a closing remark. And you’re left to wonder whether you’ve watched a freshman college course with laughs, or a failed comedy with a lecture surgically grafted on to it.