Film Review: All the Money in the World

by Carrie Kahn on December 25, 2017

All the money can’t buy happiness in Scott’s tense new thriller

Gail (Michelle Williams) waits to speak with her ex-father-in-law.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, the saying goes, and so director Ridley Scott’s new film All the Money in the World had already captivated the public interest months before its release today. As most readers are probably aware, the bad publicity here was the revelation back in October that the film’s original lead, Kevin Spacey, had sexually harassed actor Anthony Rapp when he was 14. Spacey controversially apologized, but the damage was done; in early November, Scott and the film’s production team made the extraordinary decision to reshoot all Spacey’s scenes with a new actor, just three weeks before the film’s scheduled opening.

In a stroke of good luck nearly equal to the film’s initial bad luck, Scott brought in Christopher Plummer to play the Spacey role of wealthy oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. Plummer reshot his scenes in just nine days, and, amazingly, the picture was only pushed back three days from its original scheduled opening date. But the real feat here is that Plummer is absolutely terrific as the miserly Getty, and delivers such a powerful performance that its hard to imagine anyone else doing the role justice, especially Spacey, who, being much younger, needed distracting prosthetic make-up to pull of the look of the elder Getty, who in many of the scenes, is in his early 80s. In fact, with the 88-year-old Plummer in the lead, the film has the opposite problem; in a flashback scene to the Saudi desert in 1948, when Getty decides to extract the oil there, Plummer still plays Getty, and, even with bad make-up and an even worse wig, still looks way too old to be playing a 56-year-old.

John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, l.) discusses his grandson’s kidnapping with his aide Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).

But that’s a minor distraction from an otherwise taut and well-crafted film that works both as a crime thriller and as a fascinating portrait of a tightfisted patriarch. Based on John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa dramatize the true-life tale of the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III, called Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher). Abducted off the streets of Rome by Italian gangsters, Paul’s kidnappers initially demanded $17 million from his grandfather, who then was the richest man in the world. The film’s title, in fact, comes from a scene in which the kidnappers call Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams), and when she protests their demands, saying she has no money, is told, “Get it from your father-in-law… He has all the money in the world.”

And therein is the crux of the movie; famously cheap (Getty had a pay phone installed in his sprawling mansion for guests to use), the senior Getty refused for months to pay his grandson’s ransom, declaring, “I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” The focus of the film thus becomes Gail’s quest to liberate her son, aided by Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-CIA man brought in by Getty to resolve the situation “quickly and cheaply.” The main storyline is intercut with scenes of young Paul with his kidnappers in the Italian mountains, scenes of the elder Getty acting callous (he only wants to pay a ransom amount that will be tax deductible), and various flashbacks of the characters that serve to provide context and explanation as to how the family got to be so dysfunctional, to put it mildly.

Young Paul (Charlie Plummer) is held captive until his wealthy grandfather pays a ransom.

Scott and Scarpa handle all these threads well, ratcheting up the tension, fueling our interest, and eliciting our sympathies. While Plummer is by far the stand out (interestingly, he plays the actual Scrooge in the fine family film The Man Who Invented Christmas which is also still in theaters, and his Getty certainly echoes that stingy character, replete with a similar haunted awakening), the rest of the cast holds their own against Plummer’s commanding presence. Williams, who, like Plummer, was also recently nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, brings layers of desperation, frustration, and fierceness that make you believe her as the mother of a teenager, despite her baby face. Mark Wahlberg, at his gruffest best, shines in a confrontation scene with Plummer’s Getty. And the French actor Romain Duris brings surprising nuance and humanity to his role as one of the kidnappers, whose conviction wavers a bit more than the others.

The film’s biggest flaw is actually its ending coda; a text scroll on screen lets us know what happened to Getty’s impressive art collection (to avoid taxes, he invested much of his fortune in objets d’art), but it fails to mention what happened to young Paul later in his life. No spoilers here, but if you see the film – and I think you should – look up the Getty history when you get home, and you’ll see what I mean; the movie would have you believe the story ends happily, when the truth, as it so often is, is much more complex, and much more tragic.  

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All the Money in the World opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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