Greed: I Have to Celebrate You, Baby, by David Bax
“Too big to fail” is, in case you weren’t aware, an economic concept which says that some business institutions are so large and with such a long reach that their failure would be so catastrophic to so many individuals that governments must keep them afloat when necessary. Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, about the preparations for a ludicrous 60th birthday party of a fabulously wealthy man, offers that the theory may apply in social terms, too. In a world in which so many seem to equate financial success with character, a man may not have to be a decent person to have a lot of friends. Unfortunately, with its meager energy and low ambitions, Greed is, in fact, just the right size to fall flat on its face.
For most of the movie, fast fashion tycoon Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie (Steve Coogan) terrorizes his staff and that of the massive Greek beachside villa he’s secured for his lavish party, as well as members of his own family, like ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), son Finn (Asa Butterfield) and mother Margaret (Shirly Henderson, who spends most of the movie in old age makeup so that she may appear in one brief flashback playing her actual age; weird). During this time, he’s being trailed by his biographer, Nick (David Mitchell), whose interviews with McCreadie’s various business peers and rivals allow the film to dramatize, through flashback, the man’s life story, Kane-style.
Most of the humor in Winterbottom and Sean Gray’s screenplay leans on the two talented, funny actors with whom we spend the most time. Mitchell gives us familiar, comedy-of-discomfort nervous chuckles. But Coogan sinks his teeth into the material, making McCreadie’s verbally abusive tirades the highlight of the film; his vulgar thoughts on what the color fuchsia looks like, for example, are both hilarious and best left unprinted here.
There are also visual gags–like Coogan’s bleach white teeth–and other jokes that reference the characters’ high dollar sign life. Samantha admiringly marvels at how much money Shakira commands for a private concert when she doesn’t even perform with her shoes on.
Few of the jokes, though, actually cut to the bone of Greed‘s supposed target of income inequality and the commodification of human lives by unchecked, amoral capitalists. For that, Winterbottom turns to a more lecturing tone. While sequences like an explainer of perfectly legal and personally enriching high finance shenanigans are edifying, Greed as a whole is like an unstable mix between Chris Morris (whose recent The Day Shall Come, coincidentally, was also co-written by Gray) and Edward Zwick, too broad to be a true satire and too strident to be pure comedy.
Maybe all of this would hit harder if Winterbottom cared–and wanted us to care–about his characters. It’s not just the jerks who are two-dimensional; the film can’t even pretend to be interested in Nick, its supposed audience entry point. There are no people in Greed, only examples in its argument.