Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 9:51 pm 
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A carnival of vanity and moral squalor featuring a vulgar mogul of the English rag trade

The prolific Michael Winterbottom's new mocumentary satire of the kleptocrat class, starring his prolific collaborator Steve Coogan (of "The Trip" film and TV series) and his teeth, is releasing in the US Friday, February 21, 2020.

Greed seeks to dramatize the fact that people in the West become mega-rich selling clothes made by workers paid £4 a day. And that's in Sri Lanka, where they're well remunerated. Sir Richard "Greedy" McCready (Steve Coogan) has been a gambler and a chizzler all his life, cheating others to make himself richer. A flashback shows him (played by Jamie Blackley) winning at cards at his private school. Then we see him buy lots of clothes in tropical countries where he bargains down the local factory owners from £10 to £4 for a pair of trousers, all the while whining and abusive about it. This means to make money the factory managers are forced to push the workers to speed up and fire the unfortunate ones who aren't fast enough to maintain the pace. Thus "Sir Shifty" McCready has become the "King of High Street," the British thread market, a billionaire off the sweat of women pouring over sewing machines in Third World countries, all the while speculating with chains of shops at home.

This is Winterbottom's social "message." In the foreground, however, the film is a roisterous festive comedy of excess whose energy (almost) never flags, but whose point from minute to minute isn't always clear. It's more a portrait of bad and extravagant behavior than a Marxist tract, and Winterbottom's politics seem on the facile side. The central event is a lavish, often disastrous, but sometimes beautiful sixtieth birthday party Sir Richard stages for himself. In his expensive fantasy he's a Roman emperor, though it takes place on a Greek island. There are to be warriors and slaves to recreate the Colosseum scene from the movie Gladiator. A plywood amphitheater is left incomplete when the Bulgarian workers walk off the job, incompatible with the Greek foreman. All the guests wear togas. A lion called Clarence has been brought in to be the star of the gladiatorial show. McCready is escaping from the aftermath of catastrophic publicity he's just suffered as the result of a disastrous appearance before a parliamentary select committee. This is causing celebrity guests to pull out and may complicate hiring and bargaining over a featured celebrity performer. There is also material about McCready's divorce from his first wife (Isla Fisher), and his tax-dodging in her name in Monaco.

On board as the Greek foreground action unfolds the supporting actors include a set of reality TV stars, Asa Butterfield as Greedy McCready's abused adolescent son (who's only waiting to take over), his feisty Irish mum (Shirley Henderson), and Nick Morris (David Mitchell), a cynical but somewhat gormless journalist hired to write up this event who instead becomes McCready's biographer, the future author of the serial for which there is a bidding war between the Times and the Mail after events take a tragic turn that's a press bonanza. There is also a body of refugees, including some Syrian children who steal silverware but give it up and are narrowly forgiven. One of the statistics posted at film's end is that Greece still hosts 75,000 in flight from the Syrian war.

In this Coogan plays a turned up version of one of his chief default modes, which is the consummate asshole. At no time does he seem other than crass, loudmouthed, greedy, and inconsiderate, though we are encouraged to revel in the sheer panache of his rude invective. At times the F word is so overused though, the force of the language is neutered. As the good natured Peter Bradshaw puts it the "excellent" Coogan "is not especially challenged" by this "shallow, if entertaining role."

All this is meant to be morally squalid and monumentally tasteless, but it can be hard to project that on a limited budget. The night scenes of the revelers in togas are delicately and fluidly lighted and rather beautiful - the cinematography is quite polished. Coogan too looks his best, tan, fit, silver-haired, with a set of dazzling expensively processed white teeth more than once noted in the dialogue.

As Bradshaw says, Winterbottom "chucks everything up to and including the kitchen sink" into the film and "sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't." This isn't my kind of movie, but then, Fellini is a little like this, and if you see it as a "festive comedy," after all as C.L.Barber showed in his celebrated book, those were good enough for Shakespeare, and rooted in deepest English folk tradition. It's an amiable mess.

Greed, 104 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019 and opens in the UK, Ireland, and US Feb. 31, 2010. Metascore 60%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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