Greed is Bad.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM/2020 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
Over thirty years ago, a brazen filmmaker and a daring actor stared down the materialistic sickness of its moment in time, and gave the world Wall Street, one of the most essential films of the 1980s. In that Oliver Stone masterpiece, Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gecko famously speechifies that “Greed is good”. Most unfortunately, far too many people read Gecko to be the wizened hero of the piece, taking the absolute wrong lesson from Stone’s personal morality tale.
Here in 2020, as we find ourselves in an even more horrendous quagmire of toxicity and selfishness, yet another pairing of brazen filmmaker and daring actor have stepped up to boldly address the times. But unlike Stone and Douglas’s film, director Michael Winterbottom and star Steve Coogan have made absolutely sure that no one will come away from their attempt having heard the wrong lesson. In every possible way, there’s no escaping the fact it lays out plainly: Greed is bad.
Never mind its brazen retread of the title of Erich von Stroheim‘s superior film of nearly 100 years ago, Michael Winterbottom‘s Greed shows us nothing new under the sun. For any audience members unaware of the fact that so many grotesquely wealthy so-called businesspeople accrue their wealth via unscrupulous means, this movie is here to make that point. It makes that point, and it makes that point, and then it makes that point some more. It’s one hour and forty-five minutes of earnest sermonizing by way of on-screen heartless creeps. And, that’s all that it is.
Steve Coogan is the film’s central character, Sir Richard McCreadie. Not unlike the real-life Ray Kroc as portrayed by Michael Keaton in 2016’s The Founder, Coogan’s fictionalized McCreadie utilizes a strategy of borrowing against the real estate value that his storefront businesses sit upon to pay for the businesses themselves. Or something to that effect. The point is, in his perpetual fire-breathing & lowballing of anybody that he can possibly screw in a financial sense, McCreadie makes the world his oyster at the cruel expense of absolutely everybody else. The film on the whole, apparently by design, is just as unpleasant as all that. What little pathos it does serve up is courtesy of a muffled-out supporting character whose moment, narrative weight and significance arrives far too little, too late.
Set in the garment industry, which itself is largely set in Sri Lanka, Greed spends not insignificant amounts of time depicting its lead character’s prickly and incessant talk-downs to various clothing factory managers and operators. His handshake agreements assure cheapo blouses, shirts, and jeans for customers of his London storefronts, as well as an utter crap quality of life for the many, many workers who must toil away at a rate of about five dollars per twelve-hour workday.
Infuriating? Of course, it is. Dare I say, Sony Pictures Classics- Greed’s American distributor- is banking on whatever residual outrage that may be lingering in the air from everything from Brexit to Trump to the themes of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. After all, shining a light on economic disparity is all the rage at the moment. As of course, it should be. But no number of pre-credits real-world statistical graphics (and boy are there many) can make up for the fact that Greed itself makes the mistake of bearing all the soul of its lead character.
Isla Fisher, fresh off of playing a much more effectively-written version of her Greed role as an aging glamour-puss in Harmony Korine‘s The Beach Bum, is right at home in the role of McCreadie’s wife. Likewise, there’s little criticism to be leveled at Coogan. The entirety of Greed’s marble-flooring tonality is squarely the work of director Winterbottom. Winterbottom and Coogan have already proven themselves to be an apt match thanks to their successful trilogy of “Trip“ comedies, among other things. Hence, for anyone going into Greed expecting laughs, it’s important to note that this is the British director and star indulging their perhaps-overlooked versatilities both together and apart. (Coogan also played a super-wealthy Brit in Winterbottom’s 2013’s drama The Look of Love).
Greed, for all intents and purposes, is something completely different than “The Trip” series. It’s not a message that doesn’t need to be heard, nor even one that’s run its course. The problem with its broad strokes and failed absurdism is that it makes the mistake of thinking that it’s going for the jugular when in fact it’s just gnawing gristle. McCreadie’s big ancient Roman gladiatorial celebrity-stocked party, a crumbling prolonged joke of an event which the whole film leads up to, is both too metaphorically on the nose and also not nearly over the top enough to usher it into the realm of social satire. (That goofy poster with the white-toothed grin and Cheeto-orange skin? Best to ignore it, both in the tone it wrongly promises and the aesthetic it stupidly wields).
In an age of unmitigated consumerism fueled by the unrelenting engine of unchecked capitalism, a zeroed-in exposé of the self-aggrandizing super-rich is, as it’s been said, like shooting fish in a barrel. Greed, then, is about as enjoyable as the preceding sentence is to read. And it’s supposed to be more enjoyable than that. Ninety-nine percent of the Greed’s audience will emerge not only non-implicated, but unchallenged. Rather, they’ll be frustrated by the pre-credits infodump and the feature-length sermon illustration that went on prior.
What we’ve got here is a statement film wrapped up in a character study. But, of course, the character in question is an empty shell, a Trojan horse, a transparent housing. There’s no need for him to take up a microphone ala Gordon Gecko- Richard McCreadie is a microphone. And Winterbottom has badly tripped on the cord.