There is an admirable quality to telling an intimate and narrow-focused story well. Even if there are more facets to the story you are creating it can be much more effective to look inwards, improving upon what you have instead of adding more. Most sequels suffer from going larger, not remembering the world they are working with. Michael Winterbottom’s Greed suffers, despite being an ‘original’ story, from sequel syndrome as it can’t help but constantly raise so many themes and issues it can never live up to them.
Telling the story of the rise of fictional high street mogul Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie (Steve Coogan) as he bullies his way into the clothing market to become one of the richest men by using every loophole or shady business practice to make himself that much richer. As his 60th birthday party approaches, he desperately seeks to repair his fractured reputation as his corrupt business practices finally catch up to him.
Right from the start Greed profits off the morally bankrupt nature of not just McCreadie (A overexaggerated version of real-life clothing magnate Sir Philip Green) and his squadron of forgettable peons but the whole of society. Winterbottom right from the start villainises almost his entire cast making it very difficult to care even remotely about any of the important issues he seeks to bring to light. Be it the treatment of Syrian refugees, the appaling treatment of women in sweatshops around the world or animal cruelty, his points are made by a group of borderline despotic people to whom honesty is something you read about in books.
Sure this is political satire, it is supposed to be bleak and cutting in its comedy and at times it is but Greed misses most of its opportunities to be really scathing instead finding most of its comedy lampooning reality television or celebrity culture. The opening act which consists almost entirely of flashbacks to how McCreadie pushed his way into an industry that didn’t need or want him is the closest the film comes to compelling as it feels concentrated, solely interested in developing how his approach is both impressive and insidious. However, this story is interspersed with segments of mindless party planning, most of which are just scenes of an irate middleman yelling at builders. These moments stall any momentum and amount to very little.
The present-day musings of McCreadie and his equally reprehensible family feel narratively stagnant, from his belittled yet domineering ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) to his emotionally stunted children Lily (Sophie Cookson) and Finn (Asa Butterfield), each one of them is a footnote in his story, a forgettable entry in the life of someone who cares little for each and every one of them. Coogan here delights in the smarmy, heartless nature of this ‘complex’ caricature but it feels like an unfortunate mesh of buffoonish Alan Partridge and the accentuated version of himself he plays in The Trip.
Cookson, who accidentally handles much of the effective satire is a fun mixture of tragedy and comedy, a product of her privileged upbringing but one who isn’t without a soul, even if it is buried under her desire to be someone known. Even when she is taking food from refugees or watching her fake TV boyfriend ‘betray’ her, Cookson plays Lily as tragic which might just be the funniest choice of all, one that I could wholehearted get behind.
The rest of the ensemble is a mesh of Britains best and brightest stand-up comedians transformed into party planners and lion tamers to varying degrees of success. Winterbottom doesn’t want his characters to be taken seriously so making us play a game of ‘where have I seen them before’ drags you out of this world and reminds us this is a satirical fantasy. The problem is, as satire goes, it’s too scattershot to make a lasting mark.