Movie review: Satirical ‘Greed’ takes a bite out of Steve Coogan
Bless Robert Altman. Somewhere out there, the late, great master of cinema is smiling broadly in discovering his “Prêt-à-Porter” is no longer the worst satire of the fashion industry ever set to film. And for that he can thank Michael Winterbottom, rushing to the “bottom” of the remnant pile with his massively bungled “Greed,” which even Gordon Gekko would agree is not “good.” It’s pretty awful, actually.
In mislaying his every stitch, the socially conscious Brit can’t prevent his faulty creation from literally coming apart at the seams. And not even the fine work of Steve Coogan, his frequent star and collaborator, can keep it together. It’s not that Coogan doesn’t pour all he’s got into making his Sir Richard McReadie - aka Greedy McReadie, aka the King of High Street - the most despicable member of the upper-one-percent. But that’s just it. Winterbottom has written the character so distasteful, so free of conscience why would anyone dare hop aboard the ride?
Even at a brisk 100 minutes, it feels labored, largely because Winterbottom insists on repeating the same point over and over. It’s the equivalent of being stuck in the middle of a Bernie Sanders rally with the grumpy ol’ pol unrelentingly screaming about “billionaires.” I get it already. Indeed, nothing creates monsters like unchecked capitalism and its guiding principle of no fortune big enough. And when income gets to the point you can no longer make it legitimately, you have no choice but to start siphoning it off the people on the bottom. Here, those folks would be the women of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh slaving away in sweatshops for less than $3 a day in order for prigs like Greedy McReadie to throw himself a lavish 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos, complete with togas and miniature replica of the Coliseum. Yes, there’s even a lion to possibly throw the Muslims (amassing on the beach below his palace on high) to, if the price is right.
This isn’t satire, it’s cynicism, which might explain why none of it is the least bit witty. In fact, it’s not even clear if laughs are what Winterbottom is after. When he and Coogan hook up for their delightful “The Trip” movies, the giggles come fast and furious. But here, the humor is vague at best and off-putting at worst. Even the actors don’t seem to be in on “the joke.” They flail away at the material with a disconcerting uncertainty that leaves you embarrassed for the likes of Isla Fisher as Sir Richard’s flouncy ex-wife, Samantha, and Asa Butterfield, Sophie Cookson and Matt Bentley as the couple’s three Kardashian-wannabe children.
All are forcibly shoehorned into a discombobulated plot recounting the four or five days leading up to the birthday bash intercut with flashbacks chronicling Sir Richard’s rise from prep school brat to titan of the fashion industry to subject of an investigation by Parliament. The film is literally all over the place, from London to Sri Lanka to Greece and back. Ditto for its tone, ranging from slapstick to the gravity of the Syrian refugee crisis. Heck, Winterbottom can barely decide from whose point of view to present Sir Richard: the kingpin’s resident biographer, Nick (David Mitchell); or his event planner, Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a transplanted Sri Lankan whose mother just happened to die in one of Sir Richard’s sweatshops.
Both are wasted, as is the great Shirley Henderson as Sir Richard’s tough-as-nails Irish mother (never mind that Henderson and Coogan were both born in 1965). None of it is the least bit pleasant unless you enjoy being beaten to a pulp with “lessons.” But keep your eye on Clarence (as in the Cross-Eyed Lion) for the big cat’s big moment. It’s the only thing remotely cathartic in Winterbottom’s consistently repellent diatribe. For Clarence, greed is just gravy.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cast includes Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield and Shirley Henderson.
(R for pervasive language and brief drug use.)