Comedy-drama, rated R, 104 minutes, Violet Crown, 2 chiles
There is a moment in Greed when the main character, Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie (Steve Coogan) tells his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), that their investment in a luxurious yacht they designed themselves was the greatest thing they ever created together, apart from their children. McCreadie makes an exception for his eldest, do-nothing son, and it’s intended as a joke. But the way he treats the boy throughout the film keys you into the fact that he means it. That’s just the nature of McCreadie. He’s as insincere as they come.
The longtime collaboration between Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, which includes 24 Hour Party People and The Trip series of films, has resulted in some worthwhile comedy/dramas. Greed falls flat, but that’s because the screenplay, by Winterbottom and Sean Gray, gives their temperamental, egocentric British tycoon no place to go. It’s told in mockumentary style, and we see McCreadie through the eyes of his family and associates in interview sessions with a journalist who’s writing a book about the corporate baron. The film jumps back and forth between past and present as the characters explain how they met him and instances that reveal his personality. He’s mean. He’s a con artist. He’s a cheat. And he’s always been that way. So on the occasion of his 60th birthday, why are so many people who hate him (some in secret and some openly) so willing to do his bidding? Because money talks. So does the promise of money. We know what they don’t — namely, that the promise is all they’ll ever see.
After bankrupting business after business, and profiting off an elaborate ruse to pull the wool over the eyes of his company’s investors, he gives himself and his wife a multimillion-dollar bonus. But McCreadie finds himself before the House of Commons and is forced to defend himself against fraud allegations. To save face with the public and prove he’s still the man on top, he plans the birthday bash to end all bashes at his beachfront property in Greece, replete with a roster of celebrity guests and reenactments of gladiatorial-style games in a newly constructed Roman amphithpeater. The celebrity guests back out, so he hires a bevy of impersonators to fake their presence, including a George Michael lookalike (the party planners don’t realize that Michael is, in fact, dead). He tries to entice British rockers Coldplay to perform by couching the opportunity as a chance to raise money for the Syrian refugees who’ve taken up residence on the nearby public beach. That’s after he tries, unsuccessfully, to have the refugees forcibly ousted.
Meanwhile, his daughter is the subject of a reality TV show and the film crew thinks it would be nice to show her engaging in an act of charity, so she feeds the Syrian refugees only to literally take the food from their hands when the shot has to be redone, to the consternation of the screaming refugee children. McCreadie, after tricking the refugees, hires them, without pay, to finish his amphitheater when the construction crew walks off the job. That’s just how he is with people. He sees them as commodities to be exploited and nothing more.
Greed works against itself. The setup for the birthday extravaganza is an opportunity for comedy gold. But it is timid when it should be bold and scathing. It’s a portrait of the excesses of the filthy rich that mostly rings true, but not unexpectedly so.
McCreadie appears to be modeled on British retail tycoon and the so-called “king of High Street,” Sir Philip Green, whose wealth was estimated at around 5 billion pounds in 2007 and was roughly half that 12 years later. Coogan is really good at playing thoughtless egoists. His performance can’t be faulted. It’s just that Greed may have worked better as a farce or hard-hitting drama. Instead, it strives for the in-between and just feels tepid.