Mockumentary of a rich buffoon and satirical exposé about the garment industry collide in Greed, the latest from director Michael Winterbottom and UK comedy superstar Steve Coogan.
In the past, Winterbottom and Coogan have collaborated on The Trip movies, improvisational larks that combine the separate appeals of food porn and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing dueling Michael Caine impressions. The Trip movies (which are actually shows in the UK) essentially define escapist comedy, and two pompous comedians driving through picturesque European towns while riffing on Alanis Morisette is basically my happy place.
In Greed, Winterbottom and Coogan attempt something with a much higher degree of difficulty (Rob Brydon being left out of this one is a perfect Rob Brydon bit). Coogan plays Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, “the King of High Street,” a deeply tanned billionaire with flouncy hair and massive capped teeth whose look weirdly mirrors that of Wayne Diamond from Uncut Gems (who also made his money in the garment industry), even though Winterbottom and Coogan couldn’t possibly have seen Uncut Gems in time. Their McCreadie is said to be based heavily on Philip Green, with some other billionaires thrown in. The film takes the form of a present-day mockumentary set on the Greek island of Mykonos, where McCreadie is planning his lavish, Roman gladiator-themed 60th birthday party complete with lions and togas, and his biographer, Nick (David Mitchell) is interviewing McCreadie associates for his book.
Greed intercuts flashbacks to McCreadie’s adolescence and his rise as a business tycoon (inspired by Nick’s interviews) with the present-day send-up of McCreadie’s birthday party. As if that weren’t a difficult enough balancing act, there’s also the tonal contrast, between the satirical take on McCreadie’s present-day life — which includes a friendly ex-wife (played by Isla Fisher) who has brought along her Eurotrash boy toy, McCreadie’s grumbling Irish mother (Shirley Henderson), and his daughter filming a Laguna Beach-esque “reality” show — and an oddly earnest exposé.
Greed feels a bit like Winterbottom trying to mix The Trip with a kind of garment industry Syriana, told in the style of Adam McKay. Tongue-in-cheek lampooning of McCreadie, a fictional unscrupulous money monster, mixes somewhat uneasily with earnest infographics about the lives of garment workers and how little they’re paid vs. how much the models and brand ambassadors earn. It’s always hard to be simultaneously didactic and sarcastic (something McKay also struggled with in Vice), but in some ways the dichotomy makes sense: the absurd comedy of the lives of the uber rich always rests on a foundation of genuinely tragic exploitation of the low wage workers who make it possible.
Coogan is an all-time comedy great and Greed is plenty funny when it wants to be. McCreadie’s daughter, trying to determine with her grandma (Shirley Henderson, who is the same age as Coogan, but plays his mother in both flashback and in present-day with old person makeup) whether she’s actually sad about her boyfriend or just in character for her “scripted reality” series hits just the right note of absurdity. Most of the laughs come from present-day McCreadie (Coogan); with young McCreadie (Jamie Blackley — quite a generous casting to Coogan) mostly inspiring us to think “what a prick” and pity the Sri Lankan factory workers who have to deal with him. Meanwhile, the migrant crisis threatens to intrude on McCreadie’s birthday party, thanks to a mob of Syrian refugees sleeping on McCreadie’s would-be Instagram-ready beach (led by Kareem Alkabbani, who works with NGOs helping refugees in real life).
Greed is solidly entertaining throughout, but its attempt to mix comedy, tragedy, reality, absurdity, exposé, and mockumentary… is maybe biting off a little more than it can chew. It’s notable that Adam McKay’s greatest creative triumph, Succession (he’s exec producer), mostly narrows its focus to a family of rich assholes and ditches the fourth-wall-breaking of McKay’s directorial efforts.
Winterbottom (whose at-least-one-project-a-year work ethic rivals Woody Allen and Alex Gibney) seems to want the garment industry to be illustrative of other types of exploitation, but he also gets so deep into the garment industry weeds that you almost wonder if it’s a distraction from them.
The closest analog for what Winterbottom attempts in Greed might be Parasite, which also juxtaposes the absurd comedy of the wealthy with the hardscrabble comedy of the poor. Maybe that’s the trouble with Greed: unlike Parasite, its poor characters aren’t nearly as funny as its rich ones. That there’s such a laugh gulf between them makes the tonal shifts that much more jarring. It’s hard to take the piss while you’re taking pity. Is you ‘avin’ a loff or ain’t chew? Greed’s ending also doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Of course, being a comedic take on wealth inequality and not doing it quite as well as Parasite is pretty low on the list of cinematic sins. At worst, Greed is a charming if imperfect appetizer while we await the next The Trip — which is also set in Greece.