In “All the Money in the World,” gazillionaire J. Paul Getty is judged harshly for not forking over a $17 million ransom to rescue his kidnapped grandson from Italian thugs — the implication being that if you had a gazillion dollars, you wouldn’t hesitate to pay up. But what if doing so read as an open invitation to future extortionists to target other family members? And what guarantee would the filthy-rich patriarch have had that his stolen namesake, John Paul Getty III, would be returned safely?
Of course, as rhetorical questions go, the one “All the Money in the World” really seems to be asking is, “WWTD,” or “What Would Trump Do?” Surely some version of that idea must have been going through director Ridley Scott’s head when he decided to tackle the project last spring, serving up on a remarkably tight schedule this most twisted of holiday offerings — the ruthless tale of a real-life Ebenezer Scrooge, played by an actor (Christopher Plummer) who had so recently embodied Charles Dickens’ old miser in last month’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
From Woody Allen to Clint Eastwood, what is it about veteran directors that makes them so wonderfully efficient, turning around tricky productions in a matter of months? Even at age 80, Scott remains one of the youngest and nimblest directors working today, successfully churning out this crackerjack thriller in less time than it takes most filmmakers to prepare their next project — in the same calendar year that he helmed “Alien: Covenant” and godfathered “Blade Runner 2049,” no less. During the same period, only Spielberg’s “The Post” can compare in terms of its lickety-split greenlight-to-screen schedule, though in Scott’s case, the end result doesn’t seem nearly so rushed, despite the added challenge of recasting the J. Paul Getty role at the eleventh hour.
That last detail has grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines (which is to say, all of them), since Scott made the decision to replacing the suddenly controversial Kevin Spacey with the more age-appropriate (and less conduct-inappropriate) Plummer as the Getty patriarch. It was a genius move, like excising a cancerous growth, while stirring up fresh publicity for a movie that, frankly, audiences hadn’t exactly been dying to see. Because whatever fascination Americans have with billionaires, it’s one thing to watch them hijack our tax system and quite another to muster the interest to know how many millions they will or won’t pay to rescue their spoiled progeny — whereas, now, they have a reason to care, if only to see how successfully one actor can be substituted for another.
We may never know how Spacey would have been, but Plummer is easily the best thing about a film that is technically accomplished, yet a bit too mechanical in the way it sets up and executes the high-stakes kidnapping at its center. Charming yet lethal, he humanizes a character who could have been the villain of a plot directed against himself — so stingy he does his own laundry in order to save a few lire, yet so magnanimous that complete strangers write letters begging for his support.
Aggressively nonlinear in its first act, the film begins in 1975 on the streets of Rome, where young flâneur Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) is plucked from the seedier side of town and thrust into the back of a van by goons (led by Romain Duris, usually cast as a romantic lead in his native France, yet wonderfully menacing as the unpredictable Cinquanta). It’s a stunning opening and the sort of set piece that Scott has long since perfected in a career that has delivered such gritty genre-toppers as “American Gangster” and “Blackhawk Down.” And yet, one can’t help but feel at times that Scott has become a little too comfortable behind the camera, serving up awesome compositions — from Plummer shuffling alone through the “Citizen Kane”-like halls of Getty’s mansion to the sight of an Italian SWAT team crouching in tall grass outside the compound where they believe the boy to be held — while somehow missing the humanity at the center of it.
Because the movie is rated R, there’s a good chance that half its target audience may remember how the Getty kidnapping played out. For anybody else, Sony’s marketing campaign has so thoroughly pushed the detail of the boy’s severed ear that it spoils the film’s biggest surprise — a bloody scene that’s easily the gnarliest thing Scott has put on screen since Noomi Rapace aborted her fast-growing alien fetus in “Prometheus,” and before that, the live brain-eating sequence in “Hannibal.” The director loves a good shock, but David Scarpa’s screenplay — based on the book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” by John Pearson — delivers wit, but not the kind of suspense we need to feel that Getty’s grandson was ever in real physical danger. Until the breathless climactic scene, which it effectively conjures from whole cloth, the film feels a little too safe, a reminder of such by-the-numbers Scott exercises as “Body of Lies” and “Matchstick Men.”
There’s also the curious matter of trying to identify the movie’s main character. The elder Plummer is by far its most fascinating, a businessman seemingly held prisoner by his own wealth who doesn’t hesitate to inflate his own legend, even to family (“If you can count your money, you’re not a billionaire,” he quips at one point). Meanwhile, with his long hair and big Olson-twin eyes, the younger Plummer looks more like “that chick from Hanson” than the scrawny runaway in A24’s upcoming “Lean on Pete,” too glamorous to be in genuine jeopardy. That leaves Paul’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), and a shadowy character named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who now works as Getty’s fixer.
As in last year’s “Patriots Day,” a modestly budgeted movie such as this presumably needs to attach a star like Wahlberg in order to get made, but he’s a compromised choice to play the mysterious 54-year-old that Time magazine described as “a tall, craggy-faced American.” The part calls for someone spookier, with acne scars on the outside or demons on the inside, as opposed to Wahlberg, who looks like an overgrown boy scout and delivers threats in that sing-songy whisper of his. Williams, on the other hand, has adopted some kind of vaguely Kennedy-like accent, which comes and goes, though Gail is so focused on recovering her son that her sense of determination becomes the character’s defining trait.
In the end, it becomes clear that we have been watching Gail’s story, which ultimately had less to do with interfacing with the kidnappers (despite the fact that half her scenes seem to involve waiting by the phone for updates) than standing up to her former father-in-law, whose vast fortune is the only hope she has to see Paul again. And yet, “All the Money in the World” is also an examination of legacy — as in, that thing all great men aspire to leave behind. At one point, Getty coldly points out that Paul is just one of 14 grandchildren, though it’s clear he’s not close to any of them, having so ignored his own son, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), that Gail’s ex-husband winds up strung out in Morocco, doing drugs with Mick Jagger.
More important to blood for Getty was hording old-world treasures, a compulsion by which he amassed a priceless collection of art and antiquities (though Getty would have favored the word “invaluable,” insisting that “everything in life has a price”). The film neatly dramatizes his perverse sense of priorities midway through, when Getty — too stubborn to pay for Paul’s release — spends $1.5 million to acquire a rare Madonna-and-child painting. Though many now associate Getty’s legacy with the holdings of the Museum that bears his name (see Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s eye-opening book “Chasing Aphrodite” for an even less flattering Getty kidnapping story), Plummer succeeds in rewriting history via his impressive turn. Whatever Getty’s previous accomplishments, after “All the Money in the World,” audiences will likely remember of him as the titan who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, replacing our previous impressions of the man every bit as effectively as Plummer’s performance replaces that of Kevin Spacey. It’s one hell of a legacy to live down.