Nod your head and shake my hand.
What’s that Greek word? Hubris. The question is asked and answered by people who know all too well what drives Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) because they’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of being the target of his ire whenever they’ve done something that might damage his international reputation in the slightest (even if they acted on his command). Do they really care, though? Do they care that being berated by “Greedy” McCreadie is a daily certainty rather than possibility? Not when he’s paying them as much as he does to take it. Does that selfishly motivated complicity make them part of the problem? Sure. It normalizes his behavior and allows his ego to grow even greater at the detriment of those that he’d argue got what they deserved.
Writer/director Michael Winterbottom is therefore using his film Greed to ask whether McCreadie is truly the bad guy in a way that both illuminates the problems inherent to that question and dismisses them with a shrug. Why? Because he doesn’t seek answers or catharsis with this satire of the ultra wealthy and those unfortunate souls trampled under foot. He simply seeks to put it all on-screen for us to laugh. And we do. It’s funny to witness the cluelessness of posh and pampered twenty-somethings—who are engaged in a romantic relationship dictated by a scripted “reality” TV show—as they provide food to real-life Syrian refugees on the Greek beach of Mykonos for the photo opportunity, complete with a “reset” to retrieve it and attempt a second take.
It’s funny because Kareem (Kareem Alkabbani) and his fellow Syrians aren’t going to bow down to McCreadie like everyone else. They survived a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean and are hardly afraid of some British man with blindingly white veneers telling them they weren’t invited to the sixtieth birthday party he’s throwing himself beside a public beach. It’s not funny, however, to discover their strength and perseverance means nothing compared to the power McCreadie wields with his pinky finger. It’s power born from lying, cheating, and stealing in ways that are technically legal if you’re morally depraved enough to look past the human cost. It’s a power nothing but hubris can negate … but only long enough for the next self-aggrandizer to inevitably fill the void.
What we receive then is miserabilism as fodder for comedy that takes a hard left into miserabilism for miserabilism’s sake. The first three-quarters of the film plays so fast and loose with McCreadie’s antics (augmented by flashbacks within flashbacks to show his opportunistic rise amongst a circus of people who hate him) that Winterbottom must shoehorn in the drama that dictates his climax at the last second. We watch people continuously laugh off his deplorable persona only to find two characters that have had enough because of backstories that remained hidden until right before the moment their rebellion proved necessary. While orchestrated for a cynical message of fate delivering judgment through the hands of others, it also damns everyone to a life of unavoidable futility.
Some will probably enjoy this dark turn because it’s “real” in its depiction of our capitalist world’s broken systems, but the shift in tone was definitely too abrupt for me. I’m all about karmic retribution, but not at the cost of good people’s souls. Sacrificing the only person with an honest to goodness heart to tell us that things won’t get better is defeatism at its worst, especially when it’s in service of facts we already know too well (billionaires control a ludicrous amount of Earth’s wealth, migrant women are paid pennies to manufacture high-end clothes, and tax loopholes ensure the wage gap grows further and further apart). Greed itself is therefore just as opportunistic as McCreadie by using this reality to make money rather than open eyes.
I know that’s a reductive analysis, but that’s all I could think about after watching. The normalization overshadows any attempt at vilification until we find ourselves with no one to root for and no one to care about. That goes both ways: protagonist (David Mitchell as naïve journalist Nick, unwittingly embedded in this life) and antagonist (McCreadie heading towards a fall) alike. We hope Nick will blow the whistle after all he’s privy to and yet we won’t be surprised if he doesn’t. We hope McCreadie gets what’s coming to him and yet know it won’t bring us any satisfaction. Doing what should be done is anti-climatic and doing the opposite is nihilistic. So Winterbottom truly cannot win. His entertaining romp will always buckle under its own weight.
At least it is entertaining, though. Full marks for that. Coogan is delightfully boorish despite McCreadie’s finery (with Jamie Blackley hilariously depicting his younger self), Shirley Henderson a riot as the tree of a mother his rotten apple fell from, and Isla Fisher great as his equally conniving ex-wife Samantha. Mitchell’s endearing awkwardness cracking jokes reveals how out of his element he is (McCreadie even takes one as a serious suggestion and implements it), Dinita Gohil‘s Amanda is the heart and soul of the whole before her character is unceremoniously hijacked by Winterbottom’s intentions, and smaller players (Tim Key‘s Sam desperate to flog Asim Chaudhry‘s lion tamer and Giannis Gryparis’ contractor because he knows his boss will eventually flog him) are always game for over-the-top antics.
I only wish that were enough and I could look past the off-putting way we’re being told a problem exists at the same time as we’re told there’s no way to fix it. No amount of laughter can shield us from the depressing reality that this dog-eat-dog world is full up with monsters and forever creating more by beating down the good ones until their desire to teach their oppressors a lesson makes them just as bad. Perhaps a second viewing will allow me to see nuance in the narrative I couldn’t at first and it will all make sense. Right now, though, it’s an example of blunt force trauma story construction that leaves no room to breathe as you scratch your head in search of the point.
 Center: Steve Coogan as SIR RICHARD MCCREADIE Photo by Amelia Troubridge. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left to Right: Shirley Henderson as MARGARET, Asa Butterfield as FINN Photo by Amelia Troubridge. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left to Right: Sophie Cookson as Lily, Matt Bentley as Adrian McCreadie, Isla Fisher as SAMANTHA Photo by Amelia Troubridge. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics