If ever there was a time ripe for satirizing, sending up for its open corruption and crass celebrity, all consumed with unquestioning dimwittedness by a public distracted by “bread and circuses,” it is ours.
Idiots idolized for their innate skill at being “famous,” and nothing else, a gullible electorate consuming what they’re told, believing what they’re fed, voting for open expressions of their own ugly “id” in defiance of common sense, common purpose and common decency — these are “fall of Rome” days we’re living through.
For all the angst and despair that manifests, hell, it COULD be funny. Right?
The daring British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and his muse, Steve Coogan tackle these times with the aptly-titled “Greed,” a tale of excess and cruelty, naked theft and thinly-disguised tax dodges all presided over by an entitled bully who is, every day and in every way, the poster boy for all that is wrong in British and American capitalism and public life.
This skewering likely to be the only punishment the retail hustler, tax dodger and con-artist Sir Philip Green, on whose shenanigans this tale of vulgar excess, naked narcissism and callousness it is based. And more’s the pity, because as angry as it is and as outrageously funny as it wants to be, “Greed” doesn’t quite come off.
Coogan is Sir Richard McReadie, billed as “the Da Vinci of Deal-making, the Monet of Money” as he is introduced at his big fashion retail company party. Let others call him “Sir Shifty” and “Greedy McReadie.” He’s hired a famous TV presenter to sing his praises, and that’s what his minions who make his millions hear.
There’s a double irony in that the vapid, beautiful celebrity doing the introduction — playing herself — is British TV “presenter” Caroline Flack, who just killed herself after a self-induced/tabloid-exploited fall from fame into infamy.
Winterbottom (“Welcome to Sarajevo,” “A Mighty Heart” and “The Trip” movies with Coogan and Rob Brydon) tells us the tale of McReadie’s “Greed” via his plans for an epic 60th birthday celebration. He’s building an amphitheater on a Greek island to stage the ultimate Roman toga party, complete with mock gladiatorial games.
Mixing up ancient Rome for ancient Greece is just the sort of thing gauche, rich dolts do, like confusing “Kansas Cities.”
As McReadie rants at his hapless builders, lion-renters and party organizers (Sara Solemani and Tim Key), he is shadowed by a well-traveled, thinks-he’s-witty hack writer (David Mitchell) who is writing his biography. He’s all “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” puns, which no one around him gets.
Through Nick the biographer, we meet the “classmates” and “colleagues” and old friends who take us through the “self-made man’s” entitled private school years — hustling, gambling and preying on his peers — to his breakthrough in fashion retail, first marriage (Isla Fisher), cheap foreign labor exploitation and a long Parliamentary inquest into his ruthless, self-enriching, predatory and illegal methods for making himself rich(er) and famous.
“He wasn’t somebody who loved clothing,” his ex and still business partner (she lives tax-free in Monaco, so his “empire” is in her name for that reason) admits. “He loved the deal.”
His “art of the deal?” Lowballing every supplier he meets, storming out of meetings in the expectation that the other side will bail. And then bankrupting the company, displacing thousands of employees, and moving on to the next prey.
James Blackley makes a very convincing Young Richard, polishing his low-rent hustle back in school, taking what he’s gotten away with to Sri Lanka where he can undercut labor costs and undersell his more ethical competition.
“Envy and jealousy are incurable illnesses, my doctor tells me,” the older McReadie, playing the victim, complains to his government inquisitors. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Meanwhile, with ex-wife on board, “trophy” wife (Shanina Shaik) in tow, son who loathes him and openly wishes for his death (Asa Butterfield) and daughter (Sophie Cookson) “acting” for her scripted “reality” TV show about her famous life and misplaced love for Mr. Wrong (Ollie Lock), McReadie tries to rant his party into being.
There’s a lion involved. “He’s like a rescue cat who needs to be put down!”
A lifetime of berating underlings bears fruit — “This is not ‘banter.’ This is me ‘bollocking’ you.”
And feelings for the ex pop up, here and there. “Is that a push-up bra, or are ‘those’ new?”
There are Syrian refugees camped on the beach at Mikonos, spoiling the view for his “party.” Celebs left and right are turning him down. Stephen Fry does not. Once upon a time, he hired James Blunt to serenade he and his new wife outside their hotel. Everybody can be bought, we are reminded.
His always-fuming mother (Shirley Henderson) shows us where his “underdog” ethos came from, even though, as classmates complain, “He went to a PRIVATE school!” He was never an “underdog,” and “self-made” seems a stretch.
There’s a lot to chew on in this film, which resembles Winterbottom’s similarly chaotic Coogan vehicle “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” in every way save for the laughs.
There is no bigger Winterbottom fan than me, and Coogan’s long been at the top of my list of British comic actors. I laughed at his obligatory ABBA joke (obsessed with them, he is) and at many of his rants and a few amusing comic set-ups here.
Coogan is game and Fisher strikes the right tone. But there’s no much bad behavior to “expose” and complain about that there’s no room for fun.
Perhaps this plays better to British audiences who know the infamous retail cad it is based on. Or perhaps it is just missing that one ingredient that makes any Coogan/Winterbottom vehicle, satire or not, amusing — Rob Brydon.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language and brief drug use
Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, Asa Butterfield, David Mitchell, Danita Gohill, Sophie Cookson and Stephen Fry.
Credits: Directed by Michael Winterbottom, script by Michael Winterbottom and Sean Gray. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:44