There’s an ambition to “Greedy” one has to admire. The concept — that a small army of potential heirs will stoop lower than a limbo dancer to pick up the pelf of a stinking-rich relative — is both timeless and timely. Yet the idea quickly goes awry as the filmmakers find themselves at sea deciding whether this is a notion to disdain or embrace.
The push-me, pull-you nature of the tale ultimately results in an artistic tie that is emotionally unsatisfying. Still, the appealing ensemble rogues’ gallery, the darkly satisfying humor and the sensitive universal nerve touched by the material should provide an initial boost that might be enough to sell the pic into medium-sized success.
The yarn centers on theMcTeague brood (a cinematic reference to the protagonist of von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece “Greed,” based on Frank Norris’ novel “McTeague”), who live for the death of wheelchair-bound Uncle Joe (Kirk Douglas) — a snarly, reprehensible cur-
mudgeon who made a fortune in scrap metal.
Four second-generation families — Joe’s nieces and nephews, since he never married or had kids — bow, scrape, back-bite and give their children ridiculous names like Joette and Jolene to get into the old man’s good graces.
Joe barely veils his contempt for the sycophants. But the big bombshell is the arrival of Molly (Olivia d’Abo), a nubile Brit who graduated from delivering pizza into becoming Joe’s so-called nurse.
The normally warring clan, sensing millions slipping away, initially panics but quickly mobilizes into a unified front in search of a counterbalancing weapon.
The ace they turn up is Daniel McTeague Jr. (Michael J. Fox), son of the brother who called Joe a weasel and spent his life working with the oppressed and needy. Daniel, remembered as an adorable cherub who did a great Durante impression, is about to give up the pro bowler tour as a result of a developing arthritic wrist. He’ssusceptible to the lure of money.
The factions in the Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel script include a viper, a potential mongoose, a pack of vultures and a naif training to be a cheetah. In this zoo atmosphere, Daniel’s inherent decency is strained to the limit, and buckles and cracks from several seismic shocks.
Director Jonathan Lynn knows what elements to emphasize when the action moves through breakneck drawing-room comedy. But the script aims higher, embracing pathos even when the results are pure bathos.
Uncle Joe’s behind-the-scenes machinations or revelations of fear never quite reach the level of fun they were meant to provide, and every time Daniel stops to consider a moral dilemma, the momentum seizes up cold.
Despite some memorable turns, most of the cast is underutilized or merely asked to effect a character trait. The avaricious thirtysomethings pretty much work as a single unit, though Phil Hartman and Ed Begley Jr. get the best lines and situations. Marginally better used is Nancy Travis as Fox’s girlfriend and conscience; Lynn casts himself very effectively as the quintessentially obsequious British butler.
The principles are basically paradigms. As the threat, d’Abo invests her role with a refreshing wit, and Douglas’ iron man has just enough humanity and canniness to keep the audience off-balance and alert. But Fox’s sincerity and goodness is wearing thin. He seems stuck in the role of the nice guy who’s tempted, wavers, and winds up doing the right thing.
While tech credits are nicely polished, the production would have benefited from adopting something a little less bright and obvious.
“Greedy” hearkens back to those classic Elizabethan or Restoration comedies that get dusted off and updated, like “Volpone/Sly Fox.” Ganz and Mandel certainly understand the vintage structure, but what’s sadly missing — unlike in Jonson or Moliere — is some moral for our times.