The crushing inequality in global economics is both the righteous roil of British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s inequality satire “Greed” and its Achilles heel in effectively dramatizing the wreckage wrought by billionaires.
It’s always tricky to find humor in ostentatious wealth while stoking our concern for the plight of sweatshop workers and refugees, and Winterbottom, teaming again with his go-to comic frontman Steve Coogan, is not one to finesse such tonal details when he’s got a message to get out about mega-loaded wankers, and a killer clown whom he’s confident will wring laughs out of audacious self-centeredness.
But in the case of “Greed,” at least, the jokey jerkiness mostly works as we enter the orbit of crassly aggressive fast-fashion magnate Richard McCreadie (a fake-tanned Coogan sporting blinding white teeth) while he readies a 60th birthday toga bash in Mykonos to save his reputation after a parliamentary inquiry into his businesses became a PR disaster. Fitfully funny and admirably dyspeptic, it won’t surprise your sensibilities about how the world functions, but might get you to think twice about buying cheap clothes (and just maybe crystallize your preference for billionaires as movie villains rather than as candidates for high office).
Trailed by a cynical yet spineless journalist (an enjoyably tart David Mitchell, “Peep Show”) hired to write a puff biography, a harried assistant (Sarah Solemani, “Bridget Jones’s Baby”) catering to his whims, and his crusty Irish mother (Shirley Henderson), McCreadie storms the Greek coastline hurling invective. If it’s not the view-blemishing cluster of Syrian refugees occupying the beach nearby that’s rubbing him raw, it’s the high cost of securing A-list talent to perform at a private party — Elton’s a mil, Tom Jones less than half that — much less getting any big names to show up as guests when he’s social poison. (Some real-life stars good-naturedly appear in the film to send up this part of celeb culture.)
Not helping matters is that the underpaid Bulgarians building a plywood coliseum on the sand for his “Gladiator”-themed fantasy (complete with rented lion) aren’t working fast enough.
Mockumentary-style interviews and pointed flashbacks (like, well, “Citizen Kane”) featuring Jamie Blackley (“If I Stay”) as the younger McCreadie illuminate the businessman’s rise from mean-spirited schoolboy to fashion-industry upstart determined to browbeat lopsided deals out of Sri Lankan factory owners, which in turn push working conditions there to dangerous levels.
It’s the raiding of his borrowed-to-the-hilt businesses for cash, however — not unlike the real-life UK figure the character was modeled after, love-to-loathe clothing kingpin Philip Green — that have vaulted McCreadie into the filthy-rich spotlight, complete with the tax dodge of stashing his plunder in Monaco under the name of his first wife Samantha, played with bubbly arrogance by Isla Fisher. Though now divorced, the exes are still flirty/collegial in the Greece scenes, an interesting character detail about the enduring bond of garish wealth that feels undercooked.
Winterbottom saves his more serious finger-pointing for the sweatshop part of McCreadie’s ascendancy, which reverberates for one rising employee (Dinita Gohil, “The Snowman”) in a manner that, combined with the Oedipal-tinged portrayal of the billionaire’s embittered son (Asa Butterfield), tips the third-act party events toward an outcome to which the location, the metaphors, and that caged beast had always been hinting.
The schematic obviousness isn’t the issue so much, though, nor the salience of the connections Winterbottom makes, which are forthrightly presented, including an end-credits litany of statistics about inequality, billionaires, and quality of life in developing countries that should alarm us all. It’s more the fact that “Greed” — which at times, thanks to Liam Hendrix Heath’s and Mags Arnold’s editing, has the loosely irreverent vibe of Winterbottom’s and Coogan’s “Trip” comedies — is satisfied merely hewing to its larkish op-ed mindset, one that still winds up using Syrian refugees and exploited labor overseas as argument pieces rather than exploring these issues more dimensionally.
Still, there’s no getting around how enjoyable it is to watch Coogan effortlessly play an entitled bastard, whether giving it or getting it. He’s so expert at the darkly witty, cringe-while-laughing insult, it’s like watching a pro athlete in flight; it’s a shame Winterbottom’s ambitions for “Greed” weren’t greater as a rollicking, truly scary picture of unrepentant gluttony.
But it does make the movie most effective, in the end, as a halfway-there template for how any purveyors of conscientious entertainment should be channeling their moral energies in our latest Gilded Age: by reversing the screwball era’s sunny farces of the eccentric rich and serving up our present-day titans of terribleness with feasts of gleeful, shaming ridicule.