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Film preview: 'Greed' 

click to enlarge Steve Coogan in "Greed."

PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Steve Coogan in "Greed."

British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom re-teams with comedian Steve Coogan for "Greed," a barbed but frequently uneven comedy taking aim at the fast fashion industry.

Sporting a huge set of blindingly white false teeth, Coogan stars as fictional clothing tycoon Sir Richard McCreadie (supposedly modeled after real-life British billionaire Phillip Green) who's made a fortune in the world of high street fashion. But evidence suggests that the retail mogul's empire has been built entirely on Sri Lankan sweatshops, creative bookkeeping, and tax avoidance. His only ambition is to further fill his own pockets, even if it means driving every business he's owned into the ground.

The film's main plotline follows McCreadie's hired biographer Nick (David Mitchell) as he interviews his subject's friends and family during the preparations for McCreadie's lavish, gladiator-themed, 60th birthday party on the island of Mykonos. Mitchell's character ultimately becomes a stand-in for the unquestioning media landscape that Winterbottom argues is complicit in allowing figures like McCreadie to flourish unchecked, and build their fortunes on the backs of the impoverished workers who manufacture their products.

The narrative jumps between these interviews (and the flashbacks they in turn trigger) and a parliamentary hearing on McCreadie's shady dealings. The jumbled chronology doesn't add much and only makes things needlessly convoluted. Various other subplots pick up with members of McCreadie's extended family: his callous mother Margaret (Shirley Henderson), his gloomy, Oedipal son Finn (Asa Butterfield), his socialite daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson), and his materialistic ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher).

Winterbottom keeps tossing in an unnecessary amount of threads, also finding time for McCreadie's assistant Amanda (Dinita Gohil) who has family ties to the Sri Lanken sweatshops her boss is exploiting, the presence of a reality TV crew following Lily around the party compound, and the staff's efforts to wrangle the live lion McCreadie has requested as part of his Colosseum-themed festivities.

These strands are sometimes funny, and the extravagant setting allows Winterbottom to sprinkle some comparisons to Greek tragedy into his narrative. But there's so much going on in the film that Winterbottom barely lets any of his points land before he's onto the next. The tone bounces between earnest attempts at pathos and overly broad humor, and Winterbottom's evident anger at his subject (however justified) weighs down his typically light touch.

A frequent collaborator of Winterbottom's, Coogan is always entertaining to watch. He could play this sort of role in his sleep, and there's not much distinguishing McCreadie from any number of egomaniacal blowhards the performer has proven so adept at playing throughout his career.

Winterbottom admirably feels no need to make his protagonist a sympathetic figure; in one of the first scenes, we see McCreadie requesting the removal of a community of Syrian refugees whose encampment is inconveniently sullying his pristine view of the adjacent beach. A general rule filmmakers would be wise to remember is that when it comes to satirizing the culture of the obscenely rich, it's impossible to be too vicious.

The director concludes his film with a serious appeal to his audience, splashing across the screen a number of stats and figures about the abuse of factory workers in the fashion industry and income inequality across the globe. The facts he presents are undeniably infuriating, and as an indictment of late-stage capitalism and the billionaire class, "Greed" is reasonably effective. Which makes it all the more frustrating that as a comedy, the film so often falls flat.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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