From Michael Winterbottom, director of The Trip, 24 Hour Party People, and The Look of Love – all starring Steve Coogan – comes Greed, a.. well, we could say mockumentary – but more on tone and genre in due course. The story concerns fictional high street retail mogul Sir Richard McCreadie (Coogan) as he reaches his 60th birthday: something for which a lavish celebrity party is being held on the Greek island of Mykonos. As we see his staff working all hours to create the Gladiator-themed festivities, the film flits between Richard’s backstory; from his expulsion from public school to early forays into fashion retail, through to early acquisitions and his rise to prominence. Much of this is relayed through flashbacks, prompted by interviews from friends and families as relayed to official biographer Nick (David Mitchell), who is in attendance, having made visits to McCreadie’s commercial partners around the worlds, and particularly in Sri Lanka.
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The film implies that the party is part of a PR exercise to rehabilitate the entrepreneur’s public image, as we cross-cut to extensive footage from a public enquiry, in which Richard defends a shocking record of acquiring businesses with healthy balance sheets, and leaving them heavily in debt, all while his family coffers continue to swell. At the same time the party arrangements lay bare his ego, his obsession with image, his lack of respect for the value of money – with everything being merely a purchase to feed his ego, and to build his image. His family arrangements reflect the level of greed and superficiality, as his wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) has been ditched for a trophy girlfriend, but she remains very much in the camp, as the lifestyle transcends any sense of pain she may feel, and she understands that part of Richard’s need to win is the need for the spoils of success. Meanwhile he has a troubled relationship with his son (a wasted Asa Butterfield), and is storing up problems with his treatment of staff; in particular Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a lady of Sri Lankan extraction, who has relatives that have suffered first hand from the shady business practices of our lead.
First the positives. David Mitchell is terrific as the bewildered audience surrogate, the man for whom having to learn the details of Richard’s MO allows us to understand exactly how shocking the business practices employed can be. The film is at its most successful during the section where we learn how the asset stripping takes place, and how common it is in the business world. This part of the film calls to mind similar sequences in works like The Big Short. The section dealing with how conditions in the factories continue to worsen year-on-year, as margins tighten, is told effectively, with consistent returns to scenes of McCreadie negotiating at different stages of his career. Although fictionalised, the film sells the commonality of the ‘take it or leave it’ approach that the disparity in economic power between the West and the Developing World can foster.
That’s the problem though – read back that last paragraph: it is describing serious themes in a serious way, and not really implying comedy. Greed doesn’t really know what type of film it wants to be. At times it feels like a fly on the wall work, in the mold of The Office or This is Spinal Tap; at other times it feels like a broad parody. This feeling is exacerbated by Coogan’s broad portrayal, and silly comedy teeth, and by the casting of Fisher who, although somewhat talented, is one for playing her roles without any real subtlety. Add in Coogan alumni such as Tim Key (Sidekick Simon in the Alan Partridge universe), and it is not clear what type of comedy it is. When such practices as asset stripping are dealt with so seriously, and with the film portraying certain tragic outcomes for Sri Lankan workers, and ending on infographics that describe the serious disparity in wealth across the world, it becomes unclear whether Greed wants even to be chiefly a comedy at all.
Worst of all, Greed simply isn’t funny enough. Conversations about the prices for famous musicians to appear at the party are wryly funny, as the lack of interest in the act itself, and only the cost, is an amusing insight into the characters’ mentalities. There are a number of conversations with cheap Bulgarian and Greek labour working on the mock-amphitheatre that raised a smile (far more comedy could have been mined from the lead’s obsession with Gladiator – it feels like something has been left on the cutting room floor there), but that was about it. Greed is a confused film that needed to commit fully to a style: be that parody, fly on the wall, cautionary tale, hard hitting expose, or broad farce. As it is, the film falls between all of these things, and is likely to please far fewer people as a result. Given the quality of the director and lead’s previous collaborations, this is a sizeable disappointment.