Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” will be remembered for a long time and is sure to become a fixture on movie trivia quizzes. I’ll hold off on saying why that is until the end of my review, because Scott’s film deserves to be discussed as a movie first.
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“All the Money in the World” joins a long and growing list of films based on real-life events. Such pictures challenge their creators to generate suspense even though at least some of the audience already knows what happened and how the story ended. This challenge becomes especially daunting when the story in question involves a crime. I am one of those viewers who knew how the story in this case would end, and it seems to me that Scott has succeeded, because his movie focuses not only on the details of the events but on the characters, who are played by a cast of highly skilled actors.
The movie is set in 1973 and opens in Rome: Early on we see a black-and-white shot of the city’s main thoroughfare, Via Veneto, an allusion to “La Dolce Vita,” even though Federico Fellini’s film was made 13 years after the events in question. Sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is out in the street late at night when he is abducted by the Red Brigades, a group that terrorized Italy in those years, in large part through many such kidnappings. The abductors demand $17 million in ransom from the boy’s grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, who is not related to the young actor playing his grandson), then known as the richest man in the world; some claim he was the richest man in history.
Scott and his screenwriter, David Scarpa, make an interesting decision early in the movie: Before following the kidnapping and its outcome, they provide a series of flashbacks that show how the older Getty made his money in the oil business, including a jaunt to Saudi Arabia in the 1940s, as well as the family life of the kidnapped boy back when he was seven. These flashbacks are significant, because they help us understand the grandfather’s conduct later on; they also underscore how lonely the boy’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), becomes when she joins the world of the super-rich by marrying J. Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), who is in Morocco with his friend Mick Jagger when his son is kidnapped. When she and her drug-addicted husband divorced, Gail refused to take a penny from the Gettys, wanting only custody of her son.
A kind of psychosis
After this preliminary episode, which supposedly halts the buildup of suspense, the movie follows the kidnapping itself, which made headlines around the world for several months. When the grandfather receives the ransom demand, he refuses to pay – not because he is unwilling to negotiate with terrorists even at the risk of losing his grandson, which might have made his character relevant and sympathetic to contemporary viewers used to this dilemma, but for two other reasons. First, he believes that paying the ransom might lead to the kidnapping of others among his 14 grandchildren; and second, although the sum in question is a drop in the ocean of his fortune, Getty likes his money and hates to part with it, regardless of the consequences.
Refusing a ransom demand has been used as a source of comedy in some movies (for example, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker’s 1986 “Ruthless People,” where Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) rejoiced about the kidnapping of his wife, played by Bette Midler, and saw no reason to pay for her return). Not so in this case. “All the Money in the World” is a film about a monster, a man whose love of money for its own sake is an obsession, perhaps a kind of psychosis. Getty is so tight-fisted that he even has a British phone booth installed in his villa (which he claims belonged to the emperor Hadrian), so that visitors have to pay for their own phone calls. Still, what makes the movie good is the wit and humor Plummer brings to the role of Getty, allowing his humanity to be glimpsed through his monstrosity, instead of offering us a flat caricature of a domineering tycoon.
Most of the movie focuses on Gail’s efforts to rouse her father-in-law out of his indifference – an uphill battle, since Gail is a single mother with no financial resources. Her only source of help is Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a CIA agent who understands the politics of the rich better than she does. The filmmakers were wise to keep Gail and Chase’s relationship purely practical, but his is the least developed character in the movie, and it seems primarily functional. We also do not learn much about Gail’s background, but the vagueness in this case accentuates her outsider status in relation to the Getty empire and its ruler.
Despite Gail’s weakness vis-à-vis Getty, Williams wisely portrays her as a strong woman who, while in deep emotional distress, does not respond with the predictable hysteria. Meanwhile the movie also shows what happens to the kidnapped boy with his abductors, one of whom, Cinquanta (French actor Romain Duris), becomes rather fond of him. Of course the account of his captivity cannot pass over the most memorable detail of the case: the kidnappers cut off the boy’s ear and sent it to his grandfather, who remains adamant that he will not pay. For those who fear this scene, I’ll say only that it is less shocking than the similar one in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Scott, who recently turned 80, gives the film a fast pace that creates suspense despite the known ending. His career has been an uneven one: he has directed such milestone works as “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Thelma and Louise” but also some insignificant pictures (including the Oscar-winning “Gladiator”) and even outright failures. I’d locate “All the Money in the World” somewhere in the middle of this spectrum: the movie works, the story is told efficiently, but there is not much depth in either its depiction of the social and political Italian context or, more importantly, in its exploration of the dark side of capitalism. The result is effective entertainment, but offers no other layers beyond the plot.
Now I’ll go back to my opening words and the reason why “All the Money in the World” will prove so memorable. Anyone who even remotely follows the media knows that the movie was originally shot with Kevin Spacey in the role of Getty. When he became embroiled in the recent sexual harassment scandal, the producers decided to salvage the film by re-shooting Getty’s scenes with Christopher Plummer. It took six weeks to do, and it worked: even without the scandal, Plummer seems to me the better choice for Getty, if only because he is 88 (Getty was 81 at the time of the kidnapping) to Spacey’s 58. Clips of the scenes shot with Spacey show that the role required heavy makeup, which all but concealed his familiar face – not a cinematic device I enjoy very much.
American critics have been impressed with the swiftness of the substitution and with Plummer’s quick immersion in the part: He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor. Given the quality of his performance but also, more importantly, the circumstances under which he took on the role, I won’t be surprised if he also gets an Academy Award nomination, which he may well win (if he does, it will be his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, after his win for Mike Mills’ 2010 “Beginners”).