British actor Steve Coogan has made a successful comic character-acting career using two basic ingredients: his own voice and someone else’s writing. Time and again, in such outings as In the Loop, Coffee and Cigarettes, the Alan Partridge TV shows, and Stan and Ollie (with Coogan in deep character as Stan Laurel), Coogan arrives in a hail of dialogue, showering the audience with witticisms from his favored point of view – a man so exasperated with his situation that the best response he can think of is to stew in his own juices, noisily.
Coogan’s preferred handler is filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who has worked with the actor in such films as 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and the light-hearted Trip gourmet-travel series with actor Rob Brydon. In each of those movies Coogan essentially plays variations on his long-standing unsatisfied persona. But Coogan and Winterbottom’s latest movie breaks away from that – mild-mannered humor is too genteel for the subject at hand. Greed, the story of a crass, arrogant man who throws himself a birthday party, takes a satirical walk on the absurd side with one of the 21st-century’s most cherished targets: the insufferable self-made billionaire.
Sir Richard McCreadie, aka “Greedy McCreadie” (Coogan), has amassed a fortune in the retail fashion industry by driving a hard bargain, a strategy that not only earns him the title “King of the High Street,” but which makes life miserable for anyone who works for him, especially the women who sew garments in his Sri Lanka sweat shop. They only earn £4 for a 12-hour workday while the boss is busy declaring £1.5 billion stock dividends for himself and his family.
Cut to the Greek island of Mykonos. Randy rag-trade pasha Rich and entourage are planning extravagant festivities for his 60th birthday party. He and a few hundred of his closest friends are being treated to a modern-day Roman Toga Party (egad!) on the grounds of his seaside mansion, featuring a mock-ancient amphitheatre, a disappointingly subdued-looking lion named Clarence, and a real-life cast of peasants – rather than chase away the Syrian refugees camped on “his” beach, Rich hires them to perform at the party as costumed extras.
Rich’s retinue is fully stocked with malcontents, most of them spoiled. His feather-brained wife (Isla Fisher) meddles furiously with the party plans. His slinky mistress (Shanina Shaik) never stops striking poses. His son, a sensitive soul (Asa Butterfield), is the classic overlooked lifestyle accessory, carefully nursing a grudge. Rich even has a hired flack (David Mitchell), whose job it is to craft the great man’s biography. The only truly candid expression of the general disgust comes from Rich’s Irish-to-a-fault mother (Shirley Henderson) – a flashback of her tearing into her son’s school headmaster is one of the highlights in a scenario filled with rip-roaringly nasty dialogue. Every scene has its own peculiar style of comic strife, sometimes hilarious, often just grating.
Lording it over everyone is Rich himself, who embodies the classic Coogan character’s built-in peevishness, here finally cut loose to roam around ruining other people’s lives at random. Rich was a prick as a young man (played by Jamie Blackley) but is far worse as the rogue industrialist who capitalizes on ordinary human vanity to oppress everyone in his orbit. Coogan at times seems a bit tentative in the role, as if the character were just too repulsive. For all his affable, insincere self-deprecation Greedy McCreadie is a ready-made loathsome individual. Watching him have fun is an exercise in controlled nausea for an audience.
To make his point absolutely clear, director/co-writer Winterbottom – his screenplay uses additional material by Sean Gray – steps out from behind the scrim curtain with a series of on-screen graphics:
80% of garment workers are women. 9 out of 10 billionaires are men. Working conditions in Sri Lanka are among the best in the developing world. The top 10 fashion brands made more than $18 billion profit in 2018. The top 10 fashion brands are valued at almost $150 billion. Women working for international brands in Bangladesh earn $2.84 for a 10-hour day. An estimated 17,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean. The 26 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people.
Food for thought, the next time you go shopping.