That exhilaratingly prolific film-maker Michael Winterbottom – working with additional material from Sean Gray from The Thick of It – has served up a breezy, funny, unsubtle scattershot satire-melodrama all about the moral squalor of the super-rich. They are epitomised by a fictional high-street fashion mogul called Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie as he prepares for a monumentally tasteless, Fyre festival-ish, Roman-themed 60th birthday party on the plutocrats’ island of Mykonos. (Rome in Greece? Why not?)
McCreadie has just suffered a nightmare of bad publicity following a catastrophic performance in front of a parliamentary select committee, and all the celebs are starting to pull out of his bash. One star who will be there is Clarence, a real, live lion for a re-creation of the Coloseum scene from the movie Gladiator. There’s no need to wonder if that might go horribly, black-comically and symbolically wrong.
This is, of course, all a caricature of the Topshop supremo Philip Green. McCreadie is played by Steve Coogan with a tan, an open-necked shirt, alpha-male silver-grey hair and emulsion-white teeth. It is a nice enough performance from Coogan, but this excellent actor is not especially challenged by the shallow, if entertaining, role as it is written, and his technical skill in performance is perhaps best shown most in a tiny moment when he impersonates Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.
Isla Fisher plays Sir Richard’s first wife, in whose name all his tax-avoiding profits were originally registered in Monaco – though whether their divorce meant McCreadie had to take a financial hit isn’t entirely clear. (Philip Green, who has precisely this financial arrangement with his wife Tina, is not divorced.) Shirley Henderson gives an enjoyably robust performance as his elderly Irish mum; Sarah Solemani plays the harassed assistant whose job it is to book Elton John to play at the party; Asa Butterfield is the stroppy teen son with an Oedipal resentment of his dad; and David Mitchell plays a cynical and self-hating journalist-turned-biographer whom Sir Richard has hired to write a sycophantic authorised life.
The movie rattles along in mockumentary style, giving us a moment-by-moment display of this hideous carnival of vanity and suppressed despair. But compared to, say, lethally funny TV such as Succession, or indeed Veep, which Gray also worked on, Greed isn’t especially penetrating about money or power. It comes alive most satisfyingly in the flashbacks showing McCreadie as an obnoxious public schoolboy (played by Jamie Blackley), and there is a clever montage imagining all the grisly high-street clothing stores with names like Xcellent that he has set up and put out of business over the years. Scenes in Sri Lanka show how he has brutally exploited developing-world labour – and always with screeching, bullying self-pity, as though they are exploiting him.
Winterbottom chucks everything up to and including the kitchen sink into this movie: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Like many films, Greed rather casually brings in the subject of refugees to bolster the drama’s moral and political seriousness: there are some unsightly Syrian refugees on the Mykonos beach that Sir Richard would like removed – but in truth this subject is not very important to the film. There is a fair bit to enjoy here, including some interesting details. Will Elton John really play your party for $1m? Will Tom Jones really do it for $350,000, and will James Blunt play a single song for 75 grand? Is that what he charged for his cameo here?
• This article was amended on 12 September 2019 to correctly describe Sean Gray’s writing credit on Greed and on 21 February 2020 to correct the date of the UK release.
•Greed screened at the Toronto film festival and goes on release in the UK on 21 February.
Source: The Guardian