Michael Winterbottom’s relationship with Steve Coogan extends back nearly two decades and has seen them essay biographical subjects Tony Wilson and Paul Raymond amid semi-regular Trips, although their best collaboration probably remains Tristam Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story. Winterbottom’s nothing if not prolific – I count fifteen dramatic features since 2000 – which guarantees that occasionally he hits a bullseye. More frequently, his work is merely reliably, diligently “okay”. He’s also a singularly political filmmaker and the problem with Greed, a satirical biography of Sir Philip Green by another name, is that he just has too many targets he wants to throw a light on. With the result that, as with the lion at the climax, the beast ends up devouring him.
Coogan’s fashion mogul Sir Richard McCreadie is preparing for his sixtieth birthday on Mykonos, part of which involves said lion providing entertainment in a specially built amphitheatre. McCreadie’s got pots of money, most of it earned by incredibly unscrupulous – but legal, as the picture is at pains to point out, sometimes quite smartly, sometimes with the sledgehammer of David Mitchell’s biographer expressing outrage through interviewing those who have been on the receiving end – methods. He also has no taste. Hence his teeth, one of the many areas where the picture ends up reflecting its character, not knowing when to rein it in, when less is more in getting the message across.
Winterbottom’s screenplay (yes, he takes full responsibility) not only takes in McCreadie’s use of sweatshops, his very Coogan, very Iannucci-esque tearing apart of those charged with opening new stores, and deal making with those he intends to asset strip, but also his profligate domestic sphere including ex-wife (Isla Fisher) and disgruntled son (Asa Butterfield), as well as variously verbally abused assistants.
All of this is more than enough to be getting on with, but Winterbottom somehow contrives to the conclusion that isn’t enough, throwing in an entirely ungainly refugee-crisis plotline (there’s an encampment on McCreadie’s – actually public – beach, spoiling his view). This is Winterbottom at his most didactic and narratively clumsy, with the Green-esque antics grinding to a halt while he sermonises.
The same is true of the Dinita Gohil plotline, revolving around her mother working in a sweatshop. Which leads to her eventually unleashing the lion that mauls McCreadie; it’s a silly, entirely over-the-top ending, and an odd piece of wish-fulfilment, since it means Winterbottom’s constructing a world where the soulless rich do eventually reap just rewards. There’s an additional, entirely extraneous – except maybe, torturously, as an attempt to emphasise how ridiculous the “actual” rich lifestyle is – reality TV show being made in the same location, which contrives to waste Sophie Cookson.
Greed nevertheless features a lot of decent material, and a lot of laughs. Coogan’s very funny, if perhaps over-indulged in a role that allows him to have too much of his head of improv (he’s much more impressive in the earlier Winterbottom picture Look of Love; here, he’s rather coasting). Shirley Henderson seems to be making a habit of donning old age makeup (Tale of Tales) and is great as McCreadie’s “Aphrodite Irish granny” mother.
Greed occasionally picks up stimulating threads; McCreadie at an inquiry calling out Bono and the big firms for their tax avoidance while he gets harangued (riffing on BHS) is entirely pertinent, and goes back to my original awareness of the picture from a Guardian piece that made it sound as if the film would be considerably more focussed than it is (“We’re not going to have mention of individual brands” in the call-outs at the end of the picture, Sony decreed; the article is probably more illuminating than the movie itself). There’s a deconstruction of McCreadie’s asset-stripping technique that recalls The Big Short, but there’s too little of it. And ironically, the most consistently engrossing part of the film documents the rise of the young McCreadie, where Jamie Blackley, devoid of Coogan’s baggage, is able to make him a character rather than a caricature.
Perhaps if Winterbottom had stuck to the biopic element, focussing wholly on the Green-ish central character, he’d have made something more cogent and coherent. I suspect he was afraid of pulling a Wolf of Wall Street, and giving us Green in all his “glory” as someone you’re rooting for by being entirely wrong about everything. Whatever his reasoning, through being so greedy for socio-political commentary, Greed becomes too scattershot and only sporadically successful.