Michael Winterbottom's Greed does not get off to the smoothest of starts, although this is really the product of circumstances beyond the film-makers' control: the film opens with an added-very-late-on caption dedicating it to the memory of the late TV presenter Caroline Flack, then transitions from this into a quote from E.M. Forster. I was still too busy wondering why the film-makers had felt the need to open with the dedication to really focus on the other things that were going on, but it clears up somewhat very soon: Flack is the first person on screen, appearing as herself in the opening sequence. The film includes various other examples of other celebrities doing the same thing.
The movie is clearly being positioned as very close to reality, which I would imagine has occasioned fun times for some lawyers – representatives of Greed are very clear that the film, which concerns the life of a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee, is not directly based on the life of Sir Philip Green, a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and alleged use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee. Of course it's not. But you would have to be completely unfamiliar with all concerned not to see a certain resemblance.
The central character of Green – sorry, Greed – is Sir Richard McCreadie, played by Winterbottom's frequent collaborator Steve Coogan. The bulk of the film is set immediately before and during McCreadie's sixtieth birthday party, which is taking place on the Greek island of Mykonos. McCreadie is on the defensive and looking to make a big statement following the bad publicity ensuing from his appearance in front of the MP, and a disgustingly lavish and decadent shindig is on the cards: Roman-themed, it is to feature gladiator fights as well as the traditional disco and fireworks. Present for the occasion are various family members and other hangers-on as well as employees – Isla Fisher, Sophie Cookson and Asa Butterfield play McCreadie's ex-wife and children, Shirley Henderson his mother, while looking on with increasing horror are his official biographer (David Mitchell) and one of the party planners (Dinita Gohil), whose family history has long been entwined with that of the McCreadie business empire. Needless to say, party preparations do not go well: cheap labour to build the gladiator arena proves hard to source, the lion they've hired is out-of-sorts, and there is a mob of Syrian refugees on the beach spoiling the view.
Mixed in with the build-up to the party are selected highlights of McReadie's life up to that point: starting out as basically a con man and gambler, before going into budget fashion, launching a string of shops, and hitting upon a uniquely inventive and ruthless model of doing business (the film explains this in exemplary fashion, but basically it involves buying large companies using money borrowed from the companies themselves, selling off their assets and giving the proceeds to non-dom family members). The exploitation of workers in the developing world is also key.
Greed sounds like a slightly uneasy mixture of elements – knockabout farce mixed with angry, socially-committed agitprop. One of the impressive things about it is the way that it does manage to maintain a consistent tone where these things don't appreciably jar with one another. Coogan, it must be said, delivers another horrendous comic grotesque, the type of performance he can do without breaking a sweat, and if David Mitchell is genuinely acting it is only to give a minimal variation on his standard public persona, but there is considerably more naturalism further down the cast list, with a particularly good performance from the largely unknown Dinita Gohil. But this is a movie with a notably strong cast, even in some of the relatively minor roles.
You do get a sense in the end that the loud, audience-pleasing elements of the film are there as a delivery mechanism for the more serious ideas which Michael Winterbottom is particularly interested in putting across: the first half is lighter in tone and more comic, focusing more on how awful McReadie is – the second explores how the system facilitates his behaviour, and is notably more serious. Perhaps the film-makers are correct to suggest this isn't just a thinly-disguised hatchet job on a distasteful public figure, but a critique of an entire ideology. In this sense the film becomes one about people who are unable or unwilling to recognise the consequences of their actions. This applies to the McReadies, of course, who are either too stupid or too morally corrupt to admit they have a personal responsibility towards any of their employers or subcontractors. But many of us who are not multi-millionaires also engage in deeply questionable acts of all kinds – buying big label fashion, eating meat, voting Conservative – and still justify it to ourselves in just the same way. Genius, according to one definition, lies in putting together apparently disparate bits of information. The film suggests there is also a kind of genius in the ability to ignore the obvious connections between closely linked facts.
That said, it does almost feel in places that the film can't pass by an issue without wanting to take a stand on it. The reality of the fashion industry (perhaps even capitalism in general) is appalling enough without the film also having to suggest this is also a feminist issue, and there's another subplot about the refugees that feels just a little bit over-cooked. Winterbottom even manages to squeeze in a few breezy swipes at 'scripted reality' TV shows – something which now feels slightly less jolly than it once did, given Caroline Flack's prominence at the top of the movie.
I suggested to a friend that we go and see Greed and he was a bit dubious to begin with: he thought the film looked a bit on the nose, and also that he didn't need the movie industry to tell him that sexism and capitalism were Bad Things. In the end, though, he rather enjoyed it, as did I: I imagine that most people in Greed's target audience will not learn anything strikingly new from the movie, but it should do a very good job of making them care about things they are already intellectually aware of.
Also This Week...
...Chris Sander's new version of The Call of the Wild, which despite being based on an enduringly popular novel looks set to lose the studio that made it over $100 million. How can this be? Well, it's all down to the size of the budget, you see, which has been inflated by decisions to slather the movie in top-end CGI, and also to employ the services of (still the biggest movie star in history by some metrics) Harrison Ford. The story concerns an enormous dog (not played by Ford) who is captured, dragged away from a comfortable California home, and put to work pulling a sled during the 1890s Gold Rush.
If you have an issue with heavy use of CGI then Call of the Wild will do your head in – even the dog isn't really a dog, but a motion-captured performance from the performer Terry Notary. Past that, however, this is a solid, satisfying movie, lifted by the contributions of Ford and other actors (Omar Sy and Cara Gee also play major roles). A lot of the hard edges of Jack London's original novel have been sanded down, and the film does get rather mawkish in places, but it's nice to see something a bit more measured, especially when it's been made with such obvious care and skill. Hopefully it will eventually find some sort of audience for itself.