Throughout years of film criticism, it has become cliché to say that a film “defies categorization” in reference to genre. Many times, the greatest films of this nature find a way to weave together distinct tones and elements from a wide array of classifications, developing something truly unique and memorable. Unfortunately, in other situations, the filmmakers overplay their hand. What results are films that are detrimentally imbalanced, confused, and erratic. Regrettably, the latter is true for the new Sony Pictures Classics production, Greed, written and directed by Michael Winterbottom.
Loosely based on the life and times of British business mogul Philip Green, Greed follows the character of Sir Richard McCreadie (Steven Coogan). McCreadie is a filthy-rich, morally-corrupt, socially-ignorant, fake-teeth-wearing billionaire with no regard for how his lavish lifestyle may impact others. Essentially, his entire fashion empire has been built on inhumane sweat shops in Sri Lanka, combined with a myriad of other shady business dealings that he manages to get away with because, well, he is rich and powerful. This type of character, while certainly bringing nothing to the table which has not been explored in film countless times in the past, still possesses intriguing qualities to be mined for the story. One needs only to look at the Martin Scorsese picture The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), in which Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the real-life figure of Jordan Belfort, another fraudulent, unethical businessman. This Scorsese film vibrated with chaotic energy and intoxicating charisma, even as it portrayed undesirable people performing objectionable actions. There are times in which Greed feels like an attempt to emulate this storytelling personality. The narrative threads are all over the place, both in terms of clearly discernible aspects such as chronology and physical location, and in regard to the intangible features of tone and attempts at social commentary. Yet, in stark contrast to the superbly crafted The Wolf of Wall Street, Greed falls flat in its efforts to juggle the pandemonium.
At any given time within the feature, there are a handful of parallel narrative points which may suddenly return to the spotlight. On the one hand, we have a documentarian (David Mitchell) in the process of researching McCreadie’s life for a film. In other instances, Greed focuses on McCreadie and his family and friends as they prepare for an indulgent, ostentatious birthday party in the beautiful setting of Mykonos, Greece. At the same time, an exploitative “reality” television show is filming on location in Mykonos. The Syrian refugee crisis, a very serious issue that should be given due respect in any commentary, is shoehorned into the plot with little to no substance. Additionally, we are shown glimpses of the decrepit working conditions in the Sri Lankan sweat shops and the ripple effect of their consequences. This is not even to mention the irregular flashbacks to a young Richard McCreadie (Jamie Blackley), which attempt to provide some extra context to the current events of the story. There are so many jarring, seemingly irrelevant, and pointless transitions that the viewer has no opportunity to connect with any of the characters or storylines. Even what should be the most poignant threads are buried beneath a mountain of cluttered, inessential miscellany. Consider the character of Amanda (Dinita Gohil), McCreadie’s personal assistant. Without revealing any explicit spoilers, suffice it to say that Amanda’s family has a tragic connection to the South Asian sweat shops which are at the foundation of McCreadie’s empire. Now, working directly with McCreadie, Amanda faces personal conflict on a daily basis, struggling with the weight of her heartbreaking past, but, rather than taking the opportunity to focus more intently on this potentially captivating and thought-provoking portion of the story, the narrative is too distracted with sudden, inconsequential segues which have no impact on the heart and soul of the film.
While the overall product of Greed is unfavorably degraded by its lack of vision, there are indeed a handful of interesting facets in the film that provide shallow levels of entertainment value. The lead performance from Coogan, while not particularly demanding, perfectly captures the abhorrent essence of McCreadie. The supporting cast includes other recognizable names and faces such as Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, and Asa Butterfield, who also do a fine job with the material they are given. The snappy dialogue, solid comedic timing, and subtle British humor bring a few laughs as this talented cast interacts with one another, but, a few chuckles here and there are not enough to make you forget about a congested screenplay. In appraisal of the technical elements of the production, a particular place in which the cinematography and editing shine is in the flashback section of McCreadie’s story. As we see him in his younger days (portrayed by an excellent casting choice in the aforementioned Jamie Blackley), the dynamic camera movement and Adam McKay-esque quirky editing techniques add a unique charm to the fold. Yet, even this style does not remain consistent throughout the entirety of the film. Once the timeline returns to the present-day, all of these engaging visual characteristics are thrown out of the window, replaced with static, objective camera angles and shot selection. This abrupt deduction in technical flair is likely to leave the viewer unsatisfied and annoyed by an unfulfilled promise of pizzazz. Still, there is something to be said for the choice to film on location in Greece and Sri Lanka. The decision to commit this much time and energy to shoot in an authentic setting for the film is commendable. Thus, it is obvious that there was true passion and effort put into the making of Greed, even if the result is underwhelming.
As Greed was both written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, perhaps a co-writer to assist in the development of the screenplay would have been constructive. The premise of the story possessed a capacity for greatness, and a few glimpses of this potential shone through at various points in the film, but, there is a much higher probability of the audience walking away from this film wondering what could have been, rather than appreciating what was.
In select theaters beginning February 28th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on March 2, 2020, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2020/03/02/greed/.