Steve Coogan is very good at portraying a certain kind of clueless, self-obsessed, rich jerk, who could not care less who he hurts as long as he is successful. That definitely describes Sir Richard McCreadie, the subject of the satire Greed. He is a billionaire who made his money in the fashion industry, not because he understands the clothing market, but because he is better, and dirtier, at playing the corporate game. He knows how to manipulate others into giving him what he wants without them knowing they are being conned. His immoral, though not quite illegal, practices have made him rich enough to be celebrated even by people who despise him. This type of role is Coogan’s specialty and he is effective here, tossing out acidic insults, oblivious to how reviled he is. The rest of the cast is funny, too. Unfortunately, the movie is not nearly focused enough to equal them.
This is an angry production and writer/director Michael Winterbottom spits his venom at many different targets: billionaires, large corporations, celebrities who support things they know nothing about, the television industry, etc. Greed (100 minutes without the end credits) goes after those and more, never really hitting a bullseye. There are several funny lines, but the points fail to land. There is so much going on that, though the subjects it attacks deserve it, it was difficult to connect with any of it.
The story takes place on the eve of McCreadie’s sixtieth birthday party, a massive, Gladiator-themed event, with celebrity guests. At the same time, he is being followed by a journalist working on a biography about him. These two things are used to show exactly what kind of man McCreadie is and how his actions have impacted everyone around him.
Part of the issue is the storytelling device Winterbottom chose to use. While Sir Richard is the main character, his story is told partially through the eyes of Nick, the writer. He is initially blinded by his subject’s success, before slowly realizing he is profiling a monster. Nick is played by David Mitchell as an awkward presence, not as intelligent as he thinks he is. Mitchell is a funny actor and he gets a couple of amusing moments, but the character seems so unnecessary. Winterbottom uses him in part to skewer the media, however he does that more efficiently elsewhere. There is a running gag involving Sir Richard’s daughter filming a reality show during the party preparations, constantly being coached in her performance by the director.
Of course, those are aiming at two separate things: the first is showing the gullibility of the media and how easily they can be sucked into the cult of personality. The second is showing the phoniness and manipulation of the television industry. Winterbottom also analyzes the way McCreadie takes advantage of the system, tricking and gambling his way to the top while carelessly destroying people on the way. That is the material that works the best. It allows Coogan to do his thing as we see how a Sir Richard McCreadie rises up in the world. Sadly, Winterbottom bit off more than he could chew, creating too many characters and subplots for his movie to handle.
The cast does what they can, providing laughs amid the chaos. In addition to Coogan and Mitchell, Isla Fisher is very funny as Sir Richard’s ex-wife. She is a perfect match for him, just as selfish and ignorant. Shirley Henderson plays his mother, who seems to have inspired his life choices. Asa Butterfield is his resentful son. That is a sampling of the supporting characters and cameos. Most of them contributed at least one laugh.
There is so much that is promising here, from the cast to the basic idea, it is a letdown when it becomes clear Greed is never going to come together. Call it a big swing that barely misses for this talented director/star duo.
2¾ out of 5
Steve Coogan as Sir Richard McCreadie
Isla Fisher as Samantha
David Mitchell as Nick
Shirley Henderson as Margaret
Asa Butterfield as Finn
Shanina Shaik as Naomi
Written and Directed by Michael Winterbottom