This is what happens when a moral message overwhelms a film
Michael Winterbottom’s latest flick is titled Greed, as its true protagonist is not the immoral, ruthless, and money-driven fashion mogul Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, but rather the sentiment that lies at the core of his shameless existence and which embezzles all the characters who are part of his circle of wealthy friends.
Impeccably portrayed by Steve Coogan, McCreadie is a man who doesn’t accept no as an answer, whose money makes him always right, and who celebrates his birthday staging ancient Rome in Greece on a whim. His beaming veneered smile is a feeble attempt to be more likeable, but also another way to distance himself even further from the mere mortals. If he could, he would buy perfection and slam it on everybody’s face. And yet the more exaggerated his behaviour, the more realistic. The pompous ethical squalor of the extravaganzas and the hyperbolic cult of appearance increase frame by frame, crossing the realm of surrealism, but it only makes the clichéd character more believable and paradoxically closer to his real-life inspirations. This should be enough to make us reflect. But to writer/director Winterbottom, it’s not.
In his attempt to depict the richest, he does not observe but rather judges. He doesn’t parody but condemns. And so, a funny mockery on certain shades of our society slowly morphs into anger, almost with envy. In his arbitrary view, wealthy means guilty – perhaps not necessarily filthy, such as Greedy, but at least superficial, uncaring and ungrateful. Do we really need to be told to despise the wealthier? Did he make this film to entertain us, or to stir us up in an effort to lead the cinematic equivalent of the French revolution? Does he expect us to go and guillotine Sir Philip Green now? These are questions that will remain unanswered for the moment.
But equally questionable is the indecisive and occasional mockumentary style of his film. The narration could have surely worked well – probably better – in a Wellesian investigation over the tycoon’s life, shaped by the testimonies from the people who dealt with him, a la Citizen Kane. A firmer commitment to this approach would have shortened the blurry gap between fiction and reality, thus potentially enforcing his social critique goal. But unfortunately, we get this only partially. The interviews recorded from the writer hired to write McCreadie’s biography, played by David Mitchell, are constantly intercut by flashbacks and regular fictional scenes which don’t belong to any interview. The director does not trust his instincts, relying on his omniscient knowledge of storytelling, thus annihilating the purpose and effect of the attempted mockumentary.
The neverending statistics right before the credits perhaps encapture the problems, not only of our capitalist world but of this overall enjoyable comedy. Numbers, data, figures, wallowing in social injustice… but listed for what purpose? To tell the audience they’d better stop laughing as the film they have just watched is based on reality, and we are all part of the problem? To worsen and make the impersonal ending even more out of context, the numerical evidence not only tackles capitalism, which is at least what Greed is all about, but it suddenly also has a go at feminism, highlighting how the problem is not just labour exploitation and wealth imbalance – but that it mostly belongs to men. Yet, the female characters in the film are peer sinners.
This film is what happens when a moral message overcomes comedy.
Money money money…
Funny to hear that in the cinema, the only art form which needs to be cash-fueled to exist.