All the Money in the World
(SPOILERS) Passionless Ridley Scott has been the most common Ridley Scott of the last two decades, a craftsman churning out technically proficient movies in little danger of lingering in the mind. He’s been at his best with more idiosyncratic subject matter (the Alien prequels, The Counsellor), although your mileage may vary on those, and at his worst churning out autopilot epics (Exodus: Gods and Kings). All the Money in the World comes in at the upper end of the solid but unremarkable scale, spurred on by several impressive performances, let down by an entirely unimpressive one, buoyed by a meaty story, reduced by the need to embellish it in the wrong – as in, unlike replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer, in a manner where the joins show – way.
This material, of the so-absurd-it-could-only-be-true variety (one of the world’s richest men refuses to pay his kidnapped grandson’s $17m ransom and even takes time out to purchase a black-market painting for $2m during the drama, although the last bit’s probably invention… probably) is obvious in its allure, so much so that, in the curious tradition of Tinseltown log jams, another telling is imminent, snapping at Ridley’s ginger heels. Danny Boyle’s Trust at least has the benefit of being in a different medium, arriving as a long-form TV adaptation in a couple of months, so should avoid the unpleasantness befouling other late-to-the-party efforts (Volcano, Wyatt Earp). It also distinguishes itself, if its trailer is any indication, by adopting a markedly different position to Sir Ridder’s latest (coming next week: Scott’s latest latest movie).
All the Money in the World addresses the possibility that 16-year-old Jean Paul Getty III staged his own kidnapping – it’s the conclusion first reached by Mark Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chase, Getty’s can-do advisor and a former CIA guy, something he passed onto grandpa – but plays events as a straightforward snatch by opportunist Calabrians. Other accounts suggest Getty III did indeed plan his own kidnapping, as a means to fund his filmmaking ambitions, and it went wrong; that appears to be the narrative Boyle and his writer Simon Beaufort chose. Amusingly, the nephew of one of the kidnappers is suing the production company behind All the Money in the World on the grounds that it slanders his family through making them appear incompetent: “They were great criminals” he boasted (such potential legal challenges might be reason the film both starts and ends stressing the narrative is merely inspired by actual events).
Of course, no one should seriously expect a fictionalised account to stand up under scrutiny (if they do, they’d be best off watching a documentary); what matters most is whether the story told is a compelling one, and whether what artifice there is draws attention to itself. Rather like Kevin Spacey’s facial prosthetics in that sense, which made this viewer wonder, before the assault allegations made headlines, why on earth Scott thought it was a good idea to cast him; whatever Scott’s talents as a visualist – and they’re undeniable, even if he’s been on autopilot in recent years – bad makeup seems to be his blind spot; he also let Guy Pearce totter on in absurdly bad old age appliances for Prometheus and compounded the error by floodlighting him. Spacey looked like he was auditioning for the tooth extraction scene in The Pink Panther Strikes Again.
Much of All the Money in the World unspools in an unfussy, procedural manner, contrasted effectively with the absurdly uncompromising position taken by the Getty patriarch, so when it does embrace more clichéd plot devices, usually in the service of spicing things up with action beats, the rather strained shift in gears in David Scarpa’s screenplay is all the more noticeable (Scarpa, adapting John “Legend” Peason’s book, also penned The Day the Earth Stood Still remake).
So Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) embarks on an unlikely but moderately successful escape bid, up to the point of an even more unlikely fake-out sequence at a small town police station. Later, when it comes time to hand Paul over, he makes a dash for it (which did happen) but the Mafia gang, rumbled by the fuzz, purse him to (another?) small town where a protracted game of cat-and-mouse ensues, Chase and mom Gail (Michelle Williams) desperately searching the same streets for him. It’s a sequence that only ever feels wrong-headed and ill-fitting given what has gone before.
Then there’s Getty, who actually died, perhaps appropriately, of heart failure three years later, suffering a stroke on what appears to be the very night of Paul’s release; it’s rather silly sledgehammer justice, aiming for the operatic but falling entirely short (his call for help in his deserted house by grabbing his previously mentioned painting, so setting off the burglar alarm, is a nice touch, however). The story is strong enough, and intriguing enough, that obvious, intrusive, “Hollywood” additions only detract from it; I’d rather it went entirely absent of overt tension, if that overt tension seems to have muscled its way in from Black Rain or Body of Lies.
On the other hand, almost everything underlining Getty’s miserly touch works brilliantly. Enough of his actual idiosyncrasies stand out – the payphone in his home; his speculation that he was the reincarnation of the emperor Hadrian; that, when he eventually delivered the ransom payment, it consisted of a tax-deductible sum and an interest-bearing loan to his son – that the additions fit seamlessly. There’s the aforementioned artwork purchase, and his handing a young Getty III a valuable minotaur statuette that turns out to be a worthless piece of tourist tat (and in retrospect encourages us to see his act as a calculated long game in assessing his issues’ tendencies). Later, Gail sending her ex-father-in-law 10,000 copies of the Italian newspaper bearing the headline announcing Paul’s dismemberment to his England estate, arriving as the wind picks up, scattering papers everywhere and sending the tycoon staggering back into the safety of his home, is perhaps the most effective visual in the picture.
Leading the way performance-wise are Plummer and Williams (it’s also fun to see Timothy Hutton showing up as essentially Getty’s Tom Hagen). The former imbues a man who invests his time, money and attention in objects because they cannot disappoint, and who is a stranger to sentiment and empathy, with a mordant sense of humour (given he said “The meek shall inherit the Earth but not its mineral rights” he was clearly something of a wit); as repellent as his outlook and behaviour are, there’s nevertheless something appealing about Plummer’s portrayal (the affection for Getty III as a younger child seems rather transposed from his actual favouring of Getty Jr – Andrew Buchan – though, who made sure to disappoint him so). Plummer doesn’t really carry off his younger self in twenty-odd years earlier flashbacks, but it might be a blessing in disguise that Scott had no time to break out the waxy, de-aging FX to draw further attention to the fact.
Williams lends Gail, the daughter of a judge (who was actually instrumental in persuading Getty to pay up), a pre-destined, aristocratic air of her own, and Scarpa makes the desperate character resourceful and dedicated to the preservation of her son as Getty schemes to ensnare her children for himself (this is, it appears, at least partially accurate, while Getty Jr’s incapacity – he’s wheeled on as a drooling wreck late in the kidnapping game, whereas Gail was in contact with him, often having to comfort him, during the whole ordeal – appears somewhat exaggerated).
I’m not so sure the fanciful female empowerment ending achieves very much, however, suggesting a happily ever after that would feel off even if you didn’t know it was a made up (that someone Getty clearly wanted nowhere near his fortune should end up administering it may offer an ironic twist, but that doesn’t make it seem any more likely). In fact, Gordon Getty, Paul Jr’s brother, became sole trustee of the Sarah C Getty Trust (Getty’s mother, who established it), from which the family wealth derived, and family members sued for recognition accordingly. In 1985, the trust was split, with Paul Jr, Gordon and George’s three daughters – Getty’s aunts – receiving $750m each (Gordon and Paul Jr’s elder sibling Jean Roland received nothing, with the remaining $750m share apportioned among various other beneficiaries). The oldest son had committed suicide during the 70s.
Charlie Plummer makes a convincing naïf as Getty III, “The Golden Hippie” as he was known, although we ultimately gain more insight into his captor-cum-friend Cinquanta (Romain Duras). While it’s true that the initial kidnappers sold a stake in Paul (there was no police attack), the removal of his ear wasn’t nearly as clinical as Scott depicts; there was no doctor or chloroform, and – I don’t know how anyone could resist including this detail – the appendage took three weeks to reach its destination due to a postal strike. Getty III (actor Balthazar’s dad) wasn’t to go on to better things; in 1981, at only 25, he was left partially blind, quadriplegic and unable to speak following a drug cocktail that induced liver failure and a stroke; Gail took care of him until his death in 2011.
The noticeably weak link here is the highest-paid cast member, now controversially so. Wahlberg is at best competent, at worst entirely out of his depth, permanently outclassed by his peers; if he’d given $1.5m worth of performance from his reshoots, the outlay might have been worth it, but in his climactic scene with Plummer – which, admittedly, is written in the corniest, most confrontational manner imaginable – you wonder how Chase ever even gained an audience with Getty, let alone became his fix-it man. Wahlberg is a good fit for certain roles, but one thing he doesn’t give off is smarts, so when a clever character says the worst thing he’s guilty of is stupidity, you’re struck feeling that’s the only thing he’s capable of. The real Chase does seem to have been something of an idiot, but that’s not the way he’s written here (he’s played by Brendan Fraser in a ten-gallon hat in the mini-series, although that may be Brendan hiding his bald patch).
While Wahlberg’s a black spot and Carpa lets the side down with some of his lesser inventions, All the Money in the World, clocking in at two and a quarter hours, is never less than involving, even if it fails to dig much deeper than its title into its subject matter (Getty is too broad, too self-evident, for there to be much beyond a moral worn on the movie’s sleeve). The problem is, this is another serviceable Ridley picture, one that’s ironically at its sharpest in the hastily reshot scenes with Plummer, but which you feel should either have doubled down on the realism or accentuated the absurdity, so pitching headlong into the realm of black comedy. It will be interesting to see how Boyle’s series compares and contrasts.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.