It Shouldn’t Be So Hard to Make a Comedy About Despicable Billionaires
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It’s never clear if Greed, the story of the rise and fall of an English fast-fashion billionaire, is intended as satire or moral parable. It’s certainly got some superb comedic actors: Steve Coogan plays arch-capitalist Sir Richard McCreadie; Isla Fisher plays his (amicably separated) ex-wife, Samantha; and David Mitchell, best known as the co-star of the British series Peep Show, plays Nick, a hack McCreadie has enlisted to write his biography.
The setup for a sendup is there, too. The movie, which will hit theaters on Feb. 28, opens as McCreadie and his entourage prepare a Roman bacchanal-themed birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos: There’s harried staff, a callous attempt to remove some Syrian refugees camped on a public beach (“They’re refugees—they can find refuge somewhere that isn’t smack bang in the middle of our f---ing view”), and a plywood Roman amphitheater that’s intended for some sort of gladiatorial performance with a live lion. Looming over the proceedings is a recent parliamentary inquiry into McCreadie’s business that’s tarnished his reputation.
What could go wrong?
To find out, viewers have to wait while the movie, directed by Michael Winterbottom and running a quick 104 minutes, lavishes time on its ostensible villain’s origin story. After being removed from a posh public school, the hardworking young McCreadie, played by Jamie Blackley, crisscrosses the globe as he founds a series of clothing companies whose profits are built on cheap labor.
McCreadie visits several Sri Lankan sweatshops, pitting one owner against another until he squeezes out the best deal possible. “If the price goes down, the factory still has to make money,” explains the daughter of one such worker. “So what happens? The workers have to work faster.”
Gradually we learn that McCreadie, though fabulously rich, has not been fabulously successful; instead, his modus operandi is to start or acquire a company, saddle it with debt, extract as much money as he can from the operation, and then let it go bankrupt.
There’s a reason the character sounds like someone you’ve heard of. According to the filmmakers, McCreadie was inspired by Philip Green, the billionaire who oversaw the collapse of fashion retailer BHS. (Green owned BHS for 15 years, then sold it for £1 the year before it went under; 11,000 people lost their jobs.) But McCreadie’s playbook could be taken directly from any one of dozens of private equity firms that have subjected companies, including Toys R Us, Fairway Market, and Claire’s Stores, to corporate pillaging.
Coogan, who often appears in flashbacks in front of the parliamentary committee wearing a power suit and fake teeth, is unnervingly good at humanizing what could be a two-dimensional character: He’s not a bad person, he argues to the committee, he’s just doing well in a system that’s designed to punish the many for the benefit of the few. “I pay what I have to [in taxes] and no more, because I’m not stupid,” he says. “If you want to chase people avoiding tax, why don’t you go after the big boys? Look at Apple, look at Amazon, Starbucks. Why are you chasing me?”
And where, through all of this, are the laughs? It’s an increasingly unanswerable question as the movie stutters to a close. The danger of all these flashbacks, it turns out, is that they drain any narrative momentum. All the air has left the film well before McCreadie’s birthday party spirals joylessly out of control and ends in gruesome fashion.
Without the humor, we’re left to reckon with Greed’s victims—the refugees tricked into working as handymen at the party, his hapless employees, the women in his sweatshops. We watch one such laborer, who happens to be the mother of a member of McCreadie’s entourage, as she falls ill, gets fired, and then dies in a horrible accident. Because the film toggles unsteadily between these people’s suffering and McCreadie’s theatrics, neither manages to make an impact.
To be fair, Greed always faced an uphill battle. Wealth porn has so completely replaced real pornography in contemporary cinema that it’s difficult for a filmmaker to linger on the yachts, planes, and mansions of the very rich and still expect audiences to get offended. Indeed, cannier directors than Winterbottom have tried to turn viewers against excess and failed. In 1987, Oliver Stone made Wall Street as a scathing indictment of the financial industry and ended up delivering an infomercial for Goldman Sachs.
More than 30 years later, greed is still good, at least from the perspective of people trying to sell films, and maybe that’s the takeaway of Greed, too. “It must be costing a fortune,” McCreadie’s mother says of his birthday party. “It is,” McCreadie replies. “And that’s the point.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at firstname.lastname@example.org, Chris Rovzar
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