As monstrous cinematic moguls go, Sir Richard McCreadie, CEO of many a failed British cut-rate clothing chain, is no Citizen Kane. Played with casual brio by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom's genre-confounding Greed, Sir Richard is not what you'd call a brooder. To him, self-doubt — indeed introspection of any sort — is a loser's game. This despite the judgment of a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the myriad bankruptcies that have somehow filled his coffers, that he exemplifies "the unacceptable face of capitalism." And never mind the "Greedy McCreadie" sobriquet bestowed on him by former colleagues and workers who testify, with full mockumentary gravitas, to his lack of character.
Sir Richard doesn't give a damn, and writer-director Michael Winterbottom offers no Rosebud to unlock the psychic key to this soulless sociopath, who's loosely inspired by Philip Green, the real-life owner of High Street retail chains like Top Shop. McCreadie's a bulldozer who berates, bullies and belittles those who get in his way or don't perform up to snuff. He's also, in the way of many charismatic scoundrels who get by on guff and bluff, a waggish charmer whose profanity-laced tirades don't extend to his adored ex-wife and business partner (a malignantly funny Isla Fisher) or his bodacious current squeeze (Shanina Shaik).
Winterbottom, who wrote the movie's scabrous script, isn't trying to render McCreadie more palatable exactly, though like a lot of powerful men, he can be as much fun to be around as the similarly brash (if way more soulful) punk rock producer Coogan played in Winterbottom's terrific 2002 romp 24 Hour Party People.
Cunningly mounted to satirize the heavy-breathing structure of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Greed is a jaunty caper littered with farcical flashbacks to McCreadie's formative youth with his ferociously ambitious mother. (She's ably played by Shirley Henderson, a hilarious Scottish aggressor with arms tightly folded around herself as if hoarding trade secrets). There we learn that young Richard is good at nothing except prepping himself to "make money so I can do whatever I want."
What he wants, it turns out, is to make millions as a serial killer of clothing stores he buys on the cheap, a 21st-century ploy that makes him prosper even as he sends the firms down the tubes. As usual with Winterbottom, a timely agitprop warning gets folded into the comedy, and here the director holds out McCreadie as a prototype of his time at the turn of the millennium, when failing ever upward became a lucrative business strategy for entrepreneurs with no talent but an abundance of amoral street smarts and an overweening desire to crush all opposition by bidding down to nothing.
Back in the present, we meet McCreadie clad in pink flowered shorts and improbable teeth, arriving with his retinue on the Greek island of Mykonos to oversee what should be the final touches to a blowout 60th birthday party for himself. The program features a gladiator arena cobbled together with such cheap labor and materials, it refuses to stand up by itself. Pay close attention to Clarence, a real-life lion who enters the scene with distressingly low testosterone but who will later earn his own 15 minutes, and then some.
Loosely sewn together with fishing tackle rather than fine thread, Greed mirrors in tone and style what passes for personality in McCreadie, a prancing hologram of post-capitalist capitalism where success is measured not in product quality but in being seen as a winner. So thickly does Winterbottom coat his villain in moral fog that for a while it doesn't register that, like a virus, the McCreadie Method infects everyone around the preening tycoon, including his official biographer, Nick (rendered deadpan by standup comedian David Mitchell), a rumpled journalist who's increasingly disturbed by the con man he's charged with, as it were, lionizing.
Winterbottom means to gradually alert us, too, to the fact that our laughter has made us complicit too. I see his point, but satire rarely shares space comfortably with social-issue drama. Late in the movie the tone and pacing suddenly sober up, presumably to let us absorb the scale of the global damage done by the likes of McCreadie, and not only in the fashion business. Fancying himself an Emperor, McCreadie garbs himself and his acolytes in togas while handing out mandatory slave apparel to his minions and a family of Syrian refugees camped out on the beach. Only they, and an administrative assistant (Dinita Gohil) whose mother perished in India while sweatshopping for a McCreadie company, see the bigger picture of enslavement and displacement around the world.
Given the general air of sardonic jocularity, we wait for a punch line. When several hurtle down the pike, it's hard to know whether to cry or snicker behind our hands. Perhaps that's Winterbottom's point, and a fitting dilemma for an age when the unrestrained greed of jumped-up shysters runs amok into absurdity. Somewhere, though, the collateral tragedies set in motion by the Greedy McCreadies of this world get lost amid the bitter laughter.