So the title of this new comedy refers to one of the “seven deadly sins” as labeled in most Christian teachings. In these times the word’s a bit more complicated. After all, fictional real estate mogul Gordon Geeko, in an Oscar-winning performance by Michael Douglas, proclaimed that it is “good” in one of the most quoted scenes from Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic WALL STREET. Another take on that word now comes from two-thirds of the trio responsible for a delightful series of comedic travelogues that began ten years ago with THE TRIP. But they’re not going after Stone’s street, rather they’re taking aim at Great Britain’s avenue of haughty fashion retail shops, High Street. And as you might have guessed, this isn’t a remake of the Erich von Stroheim silent 1924 epic. The sin’s much the same, but this is a completely different take on GREED.
In the opening moments, we see a TV news report touting the success of the big fashion line from High Street staple Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan). Video of the big company shareholders’ party shows him handing out over-sized checks to supervisors and board members including his wife Samantha (Isla Fisher). Watching the report from his tiny apartment is writer Nick (David Mitchell), who is in the middle of his latest book deal, authoring a biography of said tycoon. The film then flashes back to Nick interviewing Richard’s past business associates and a few family members, and includes scenes of a young Richard (Jamie Blackley) conning classmates at his posh prep school before being expelled, with his mum Margaret (Shirley Henderson) deriding the headmaster. As Nick boards a plane to Greece, where a lavish 60th birthday celebration for Richard will be held on the island of Mykonos, we learn more of the mogul’s business past, lowballing clothing companies, pushing out competitors, low bidding “sweatshop” factories in Sri Lanka, bankrupting several shops and fashion lines, and getting a “rap on the knuckles” from the British courts. On the island , the McCreadie staff is in a panic trying to push the local laborers and craftsmen to finish a recreation of a Roman collesium in the next two days. It’s a party inspired by their boss’s favorite film GLADIATOR, complete with an old lethargic lion. Soon the McCreadie family begin arriving on different yachts. First, it’s Richard with his mistress, supermodel Naomi (Shanina Shaik). Then it’s estranged wife Samantha with her new French beau (yes, she and Richard are only married in the legal sense as he’s using her as a tax shield). Surly son Finn (Asa Butterfield) drops in as does the huge entourage (including the film crew of her “reality” TV show) of his sister Lily (Sophie Cookson). The planners are put through more agita as they try to deal with the refugees that are legally allowed to set up camp on the public beaches. But surely all will be ready for the world to witness the adoration of the famous and powerful for the “birthday boy”. But will this finally erase his nickname of “Greedy McCreadie”? It just might, unless something goes wrong…
Once again Coogan proves himself to be the comedy king of self-absorbed pompous jerks (talking of his roles, of course). With McCreadie, he ventures into cartoonish grotesquery with his over-sprayed tan and ludicrous blinding-white choppers (makes Sandler’s dental deceit in UNCUT GEMS look restrained). Perhaps this is to heighten the character’s disconnection with humanity and exaggerate his buffoonish braying and boasting. Sure he’s just as clueless as Coogan’s other comic turns, but unlike Alan Patridge and His caricatured persona in the TRIP flicks, there’s few redeemable qualities in McCreadie, all that’s there is an avarice ego-driven monster who lives to cheat anyone of the few possessions they need. The faults of his family and various sycophants pale next to this modern ogre. Henderson as his devoted, enabling mother proves that the apple doesn’t fall that far at all. She emits a true toxic energy casting a pall over any scene she waddles into. Fisher ‘s a delightfully daffy social climber whose heart (buried deep in her latest surgical …um…enhancements) still somehow longs for eventual ex. Meanwhile Butterfield, as their son, seethes with contempt, miserable as he must endure his Daddy’s taunts and tirades. Cookson scores lots of laughs as the typical “spoiled lil’ rich girl” who just can’t emote for his reality show’s “storyline”. Mitchell makes an awkward investigator who, with his clumsy, often witty musing, is a true fish out of water. The plot’s dramatic subplot is expertly carried by Dinita Gohil as Amanda, ex-retail store manager who’s now part of an army of personal assistants. She knows the true consequences of McCreadie’s dealings and may find a way to hasten his much-delayed comeuppance.
Director Michael Winterbottom, who wrote the script with an assist from Sean Gray, appears to be juggling the styles of several other iconic comedy filmmakers. Nick’s inquiries and interviews are much in the vein of Christopher Guest’s “mockumentaries” with the cuts from the “talking heads” to the scenes of McCreadie’s corruption. As the prep for the party amps up, Winterbottom adds to the chaos via the overlapping dialogue techniques of Howard Hawks and especially Robert Altman (with some of the thick accents I had a tough time grasping some gags). Still the film falters a bit when it explores several real-life tragedies, especially with the families stranded on the beach, although their exploitation by the reality show is a needed jab at publicity-starved celebs using those really starving. That’s when story is set aside for the film’s real agenda. It’s hammered (or pummeled) home during an interminable “fact-montage” preceding the end credits pointing out (over and over) the massive gap between those who make the clothes and those that sell and model them. The producers must assume that we didn’t come away with that from the film’s previous 95 minutes. Perhaps part of that sequence could have been whittled down in order to spend the time and budget on that inept CGI lion (I may owe the cartoon Buck the dog in CALL OF THE WILD an apology). Yes, this is a satire on society, but the true ugliness of the subjects (and their real-life inspirations) works against the comic tone of the tale. What should be a banana peel pratfall of a stuffy rich guy turns into a gruesome evisceration. Coogan’s always a watchable performer, but the heavy-handed GREED is just not (here’s Gecko again) “good”.
2 out of 4
GREED opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas