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Non-Review Review: Greed

Greed, for lack of a better word, is not good.

Greed belongs to a relatively recent subgenre, the sort of ironic and winking social commentary of films like The Big Short, Vice and Bombshell. There is a sense with these sorts of films that earnestness is overdone, that aching sincerity will only get a strong moral message so far, and that the proper way to engage with audiences is through a wry self-awareness that acknowledges the cynicism of the world in which people live. Theoretically, this approach allows the film to communicate strong central themes without potentially alienating audiences through self-righteousness or self-satisfaction.

Like all subgenres, the quality of the end result varies on a case-by-case basis. However, Greed seems like a project perfectly suited to director Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom is a director who frequently blends fact and fiction in his work – to point where, due to his work on projects like The Trip and Tristram Shandy, a lot of his collaborations with Steve Coogan involve the actor playing a fictionalised version of himself. So there’s something interesting in the way that Greed takes a template often applied to true stories and instead builds a story around a fictional avatar of capitalism, Sir Richard MacReady.

However, Greed just doesn’t work. It’s not consistently funny enough to pull off the knowing approach to its tale of global inequality. It packs fewer genuine laughs into its runtime than more direct critiques of capitalist excess like The Wolf of Wall Street. It also lacks the comfort of projects like The Big Short and Vice in blending exposition into narrative, often clumsily halting its story to deliver earnest lectures almost directly into the camera through painful framing devices. “Think of me as an idiot,” insists one character, before setting in motion the obligatory “how capitalism works” montage.

More to the point, the narrative elements themselves also struggle, with the film awkwardly trying to casually set up dominoes to build to a seemingly chaotic outcome that looks a little too arch and too planned to come across as spontaneous. This is the problem with Greed. The film, ironically enough, seems greedy. It wants to do too much, it wants to be too many things. As a result, it winds up under-cooking the constituent elements and struggling to find a way to integrate them into a cohesive whole.

Greed is an interesting work in that – like Bombshell – it serves as a reminder that films like The Big Short and Vice are managing a much more complicated balancing act than might originally appear.

To be fair, some of the problems with Greed are baked into the premise. The film wants to have it both ways. It wants to look like a biting commentary of the world as it is, while also offering a very heightened and stylised fictional narrative. There are moments in Greed that consciously evoke naturalism, looking almost like a companion piece to the popular “mockumentary” style of British comedy that was popular in the early twenty-first century, shows like The Office and even The Thick of It.

There are a lot of scenes built around the camera observing MacReady on what appears to be an ordinary day for him. For all that the film trades in figures in the hundreds of millions, the bulk of Greed is given over to smaller examples that suggest the bigger picture – haggling over the price of inventory, chewing out subordinates, arguing about the visibility of the brand logo. The point seems to be to offer a portrait of the protagonist as glimpsed through a variety of small sketches. Indeed, one of the major characters is MacReady’s clumsy biographer, who films awkwardly framed off-centre handheld footage.

However, juxtaposed with these smaller attempts to offer a glimpse of MacReady as an actual person – a pathetic, insecure, abusive, cynical person who haggles with taxi drivers over the equivalent of a pound – is something that tries to be larger and more cartoonish. Greed is too consciously and too clearly designed to ever convincingly suggest the improvisational or naturalist tone suggested by those scenes of MacReady. Most obviously, the lead character in this capitalist critique is literally named Richard “Rich” MacReady, with the last name seemingly chosen so he can be nicknamed “Greedy MacReady.”

There’s a lot of “cuteness” around Greed, and it severely undercuts the film’s efforts to offer a relatively grounded and mundane portrait of the banality of evil. The audience is repeatedly shown and told that MacReady loves magic, which sets up the idea that he has a knack for making money disappear. This would be a heavy-handed metaphor of itself, but Greed then has characters explain the metaphor of how MacReady’s love of magic is reflected in his business practice and literally introduces MacReady by having him make a friend’s money just disappear.

This gets at the awkwardness at the heart of the film, the balance that Greed never manages to get right. It is perhaps typified by Shirley Henderson’s performance as MacReady’s mother. The film honestly attempts to present MacReady’s mother as something of an explanation for how he became the man that he is, in the same way that MacReady’s relationship with his own troubled son Finn will define the future of his empire. (“The mother’s worse than the child,” laments one headmaster.) However, the film never presents MacReady’s mother as anything other than a cartoon.

Everything in Greed seems overly designed. The film’s climax is effectively a Rube Goldberg machine, a series of intersecting coincidences and misfortunes that builds inexorably towards an inevitable outcome. Greed approaches this with its own lack of subtlety; in the closing minutes, a major character explains that the film’s climactic disaster is really a metaphor for capitalism, where people often describe things as “just happening” without any malice or violence. Even ignoring the overly-laboured (and overly-explicit) metaphor, the problem is that everything feels over-designed.

Greed is so loose a film, dominated by those aforementioned “ordinary day in a life of a billionaire” scenes, that it cannot help but flag when it is setting up something to pay off down the line. The seemingly random events building to the story’s climax don’t seem random, because the movie invests particular effort in setting them up. There is no way that these particular marbles, rolling down that particular hill, cannot collide in that exact way. Greed tries to present these collisions as the absurd but inevitable result of a broken system. Instead, they are so carefully mannered that the audience can see the writers’ hands.

This is a shame, because there is some interesting material here. Indeed, Greed is so frustrating partially because it’s dealing with material that is worthy of attention and merits exploration. Instead, Greed struggles to integrate its points into its study of its central protagonist. The film’s closing scenes make the point of the gender dynamics at play in capitalist structures, but this has not been a point of particular concern for the film. MacReady’s avarice has enslaved his male subordinates just as readily as the women around him. The gendering of capitalism is an interesting point, but one Greed has no idea how to make.

Greed often feels like a wasted opportunity.

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