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Review of Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed”: All bark, no bite

As a big fan of satire, I was eagerly looking forward to Greed, the new movie from writer-director Michael Winterbottom, which offers a searing send-up of the arrogance of the mega-wealthy and the unethical practices of the fashion industry. With some fiery one-liners in the trailer and a cast headed by Steve Coogan – a long-time collaborator of Winterbottom – I was sold. Like every decent satire, Greed aims to make you laugh and think, and unfortunately, it feels like a bit of a let-down on the second part. While there are plenty of laughs to be had of the dialogue, the movie’s strong social message never really hits the mark.

Coogan stars as Sir Richard McCreadie, the multi-billionaire owner of one of Britain’s most successful high-street fashion chains. To some, he’s an admirably shrewd businessman and the ultimate self-made success story. To others, he’s the human embodiment of vanity and amorality, who represents the worst excesses of capitalism. For his upcoming 60thbirthday, he’s pulling out all the stops for a lavish, Roman-themed four-day party on the Greek island of Mykonos, replete with a replica gladiator arena, celebrity guests aplenty and a live lion. Among the numerous staff and lackeys present is McCreadie’s authorized biographer Nick (David Mitchell, doing his usual awkward intellectual shtick), who grapples with whether to write the sycophantic puff piece everyone expects from him or a more honest assessment of his deeply unlikeable subject.

Winterbottom keeps the audience on their toes by darting back and forth between the countdown to the birthday bash, McCreadie’s hardly remorseful appearance at an ethics committee hearing, and some mockumentary-style interviews with his old friends and colleagues for Nick’s biography. The best parts of Greed come early in the movie with a series of flashbacks showing the rise of the young McCreadie (a brilliantly obnoxious Jamie Blackley) from private school dropout to scheming entrepreneur. These work so well because they’re so rich in characterization, an area in which the rest of the movie is sorely lacking.

Coogan delivers a viciously funny performance as the odious Sir Rich, and he certainly looks the part of the perma-tanned fat cat, complete with a set of emulsion-white teeth that would give Joey Essex a run for his money. He puts his comic skills to highly effective use through his machine-gun delivery of the savage four-letter insults and put-downs with which the script is rich, and really brings to life this horrifying caricature of a ruthless billionaire, a man who revels in his tabloid-friendly nickname “Greedy McCreadie”. Unfortunately, that’s all this role is – a caricature rather than a fully fleshed-out character who the audience can truly invest in.

What really prevents Greed from reaching its potential is the lack of subtlety with which it tries to deliver its serious message about the exploitation of the vulnerable by the fashion industry. The in-your-face onscreen statistics about wealth inequality at the end of the movie feel clunky and trite. The countless celebrity cameos – including Chris Martin, Keira Knightley, James Blunt (gamely mocking his one-hit-wonder status) and a posthumous appearance from Caroline Flack – in a movie which condemns celebrity endorsements of fashion brands that use sweatshop labor feels like Winterbottom is trying to have his cake and eat it.

Even less subtle are the constant allusions to the story unfolding like a Greek tragedy, from McCreadie’s teenage son (Asa Butterfield) harboring an oedipal resentment of his father, to Nick constantly quoting Aristotle and Homer, to the observation that McCreadie possesses “what’s that Greek word? Hubris”, to the party taking place in actual Greece. Such lack of nuance left the twist ending feeling more than a little hollow.

Greed isn’t good – well, not as good as it could have been.

In cinemas now.

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