Steve Coogan’s costars include his perma-tan and garishly whitened teeth in “Greed.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Steve Coogan’s costars include his perma-tan and garishly whitened teeth in “Greed.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Fitfully funny satire of our corrupt age needs sharper fangs

“Greed,” about a corporate con man throwing himself a birthday party, fails to destroy its scared-cow targets.

Satire is struggling to survive in this beyond-parody era of ours. “Greed” is the latest example.

This movie is made by talented people and its targets deserve all the arrows sent their way. Yet the film keeps falling short of the jugular vein.

At its center is a British retail titan, Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan), a con artist nicknamed “The King of the High Street” for his association with chain stores. McCreadie is in transition mode; he’s recently been hauled before an investigative board, and wants to repair his reputation by throwing a massively tasteless 60th birthday party for himself.

Whenever the movie focuses on the birthday bash, it scores. Imagined as an elaborate toga party on a Greek island, with copious quotes (and misquotes) from McCreadie’s beloved “Gladiator,” the party features a tacky fake Coliseum and one very real lion.

Meanwhile, McCreadie has commissioned a fawning biography, to be written by an easily flattered journalist (David Mitchell, a very droll British comic actor). This structure allows us to find out how McCreadie amassed his wealth.

In detailing how the system works, “Greed” borrows a few pages (and a comic/furious tone) from “The Big Short.” We see how McCreadie strikes deals with Asian sweatshops and bluffs his way through meetings with financial backers.

In one brilliant section, we get a tutorial on “asset stripping and tax avoidance,” two techniques that have allowed McCreadie to become rich without actually being very good at business. What he is good at is not having a conscience, a quality upon which many fortunes are built.

Coogan, one of the world’s leading experts in conveying fatuousness, is very comfortable here. With his perma-tan and blindingly whitened teeth, he’s a walking advertisement for narcissism.

At one point a desperate group of Syrian refugees camps out on the beach meant for McCreadie’s birthday bash. The tycoon insists they be removed: “It’s not me, it’s my guests. Some of them are very superficial.”

Director Michael Winterbottom worked with Coogan in the “Trip” series and “Tristram Shandy.” Here, Coogan takes his place in a larger ensemble, but I couldn’t help wondering if the film might have had more bite if he dominated the story more — a risky tactic, to be sure, given his character’s repellent nature.

The cast includes Isla Fisher as Coogan’s ex-wife and Asa Butterfield as his sullen son. A few famous faces float past, and — very amusingly — so do a series of celebrity doubles, hired for McCreadie’s party when real A-listers cancel.

“Greed” is a little too scattered to truly demolish its sacred cows — although I did like the lion, which will play its role before the end. Really, if satire involves exaggerating to make a point, how can you possibly exaggerate the madness of 2020, where a ludicrous guy like McCreadie looks like a small-timer?

“Greed” (2½ stars)

Satire about a crooked British millionaire (Steve Coogan in his zone) whose plans for a garish 60th birthday party are detailed here, with aside for “Big Short”-style explainers about the warped financial system. Director Michael Winterbottom’s film is sporadically funny, but it only occasionally demolishes its sacred cows. With Isla Fisher.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Opening Friday: Alderwood, Everett Stadium, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Cascade Mall

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