LFF Nick Hilton

#LFF 2019: Greed review

★★☆☆☆

Michael Winterbottom reunites with his perennial stars Steve Coogan and Shirley Henderson for a satire of the superrich set in the days running up to a lavish 60th birthday party in Mykonos.

Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, a clear pastiche of Philip Green that skims just wide enough of biography to keep the film out of a lawsuit. All the same, Winterbottom’s focus is clear: Greed is an outcry against the reckless asset stripping of the British high street and the myriad ways that avarice has disadvantaged the world’s poor. McCreadie is no Gordon Gekko; he’s a sweary old man with fluorescent dentures. Facing a Parliamentary select committee and with public confidence in his business empire dented, he sets out to throw the party to end all parties, complete with a Gladiator re-enactment, a Made In Chelsea-style camera crew (the film, bizarrely, stars one of that show’s cast), and what can only be described as Chekhov’s lion.

Coogan’s McCreadie is in some ways an extension of his version of Paul Raymond from The Look of Love. A self-made (middle-class) barrow boy, it’s a role Coogan loves playing. Around him, Winterbottom has assembled a top cast of British TV talent, ranging from David Mitchell as dithering biographer Nick to Sarah Solemani as the cutthroat party planner, by way of Asim Chaudhry, Charlie Cooper, Pearl Mackie and Tim Key. Isla Fisher adds a (needed) bit of Hollywood credibility as McCreadie’s Monoco-based ex-wife, into whom he has recently siphoned the assets of a department store chain.

The problems with Greed (besides its televisual style) emerge as Winterbottom struggles to balance the dark but relatively broad comedy with political message mongering. The film makes the most sense, outside of satirising Britain’s superrich, when it’s showing the flipside of fast fashion. To do this, Winterbottom employs a device where Coogan’s McCreadie is shown brokering deals in Sri Lanka to get designer jeans for a fraction of the prices offered by British manufacturers. This is all a fairly logical progression of the farce, but it doesn’t allow the narrative to move into the murkier areas that Winterbottom wants to cover.

To do this, he concocts Amanda (played by Dinita Gohil), a Mary Sue in a field of idiots, to serve as both the voice of reason amongst McCreadie’s employees, and also the human link to the low-wage labourers in Sri Lanka (her aunt works in a factory in Colombo, whilst her mother died in a fire at a similar fabric plant). The clumsiness of this device would be more excusable if Amanda wasn’t also thrown into a plotline involving Syrian refugees, whose presence in the story seems to be more to with the fact that, well, it’s Mykonos, than any genuine urgency.

There is no interrogation of the socio-economic forces driving the war in Syria, they are simply used as another vehicle for examining ‘greed’, as McCreadie tries to move them off the beach before his party. But the result is that the film uses all its people of colour as moral polemicists, orbiting and interrupting the film’s central knockabout comedy. In the end, it’s clear that Winterbottom takes very seriously both outsourced worker exploitation and the Mediterranean refugee crisis. What he seems to take less seriously are the allegations of harassment and bullying surrounding the retail baron that the film is parodying. So the movie ends up being a mishmash of quite blue satire and moments of real worthiness that seem ill-earned by the film’s other disposition.

In order for a film to successfully use comedy to make genuine points about global inequality, some sort of voice or resonance (jokes too, not just trite exposition) has to be given to the people who are actually affected by the titular greed. Otherwise, it is just a self-satisfied lip service. So, despite the best efforts of Coogan and Co, Winterbottom fails to nail high street tycoons like Oliver Stone nailed Wall Street playboys. As Gordon Gekko might’ve been heard to whisper after a screening… Greed is not good.

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff

Nick Hilton