Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
“Greed” is an ironically shallow satire about shallow people. The film’s uneven tone undercuts the biting satirical elements. This is a movie meant to raise awareness, but the apparent message is too blunt to be effective.
The collaboration of prolific director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan has produced memorable cinema over the years. Back in 2002, the two worked together on the fun and insightful “24 Hour Party People.” More recently, their combined efforts struck gold with “The Trip” series, the latest of which, “The Trip to Greece,” is scheduled to be released later this year.
“Greed” has Coogan stepping in for Sasha Baron Cohen on this project to play Sir Richard McCreadie. A ruthless billionaire, McCreadie has been dubbed “Greedy McCreadie,” as his rise in the fast-fashion industry was mostly on the back of underpaid Third World workers. And after years of making his distinctive and divisive mark in the business world, McCreadie decides to throw himself an expensive 60th birthday party on the Greek island Mykonos.
The party’s modeled after his favorite movie, 2000’s “Gladiator.” He has a coliseum built, the partiers are to adopt period dress (he will look like an emperor), and the “help” will be slaves. Oh, and he’s even flown in an actual lion to put the authentic edge on the gladiator games.
Part of the preparations for the part involves his personal biographer, Nick (“Peep Show’s” David Mitchell), to visit with people from his past and collect birthday wishes on video. Nick learns about the man he’s writing about in the process. These recollections provide a chance for the viewer to learn about Greedy McCreadie, as well.
The best parts of “Greed” are the flashbacks starting with Jamie Blackley playing the young McCreadie. It’s also a fast-paced review of the history of the fashion industry’s exploitation of Third World workers. Through the relentless McCreadie, Winterbottom makes his point solidly in the film’s first half, but the present-day narrative lets the whole picture down.
It’s uncomfortable to watch Coogan play an awful, awful person. In the role, he’s appropriately smug, dismissive, and self-centered. His teeth are artificially enhanced, appearing blindingly white. Like those teeth, it’s all turned up to eleven immediately, leaving the one-note character nowhere to go. Around McCreadie are an attractive collection of sycophants played by wonderful actors, including Baron Cohen’s real-life wife Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, and Asa Butterfield.
Henderson is fantastic as McCreadie’s equally ruthless mother. She nearly steals the show early in one scene where she dresses down a school headmaster and a teacher. But as the attention turns to less entertaining characters, the movie loses its edge.
Winterbottom has always been a writer and director whose films contain a life lesson. Here he attacks capitalism. To give his nasty, little satire artificial weight, he mixes in a serious subplot involving a character named Amanda (Dinita Gohil), who has a familial tie to the plight of fashion workers in the Third World. And to further complicate things, Winterbottom populates a nearby beach with Syrian refugees that McCreadie is determined to remove because they will disturb his guests.
The tone of “Greed” is all over the place. The movie moves from a skewer of the fashion industry to the plight of the Syrian people. And the epilogue beats the viewer over the head with the message we received more subtly (and effectively) from the beginning. It’s just a miss. But Coogan, standing in for Baron Cohen, does his level best, which is always worth a look.
One wonders if Baron Cohen had taken the lead here if the film would have gone more in the comedic and satiric direction. But unfortunately, Winterbottom doesn’t trust the power of comedy to make his most important points. Laughter is often a great change agent.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com