Plummer and Williams excel in a film that, despite the casting controversies, will go down in history as another unremarkable Ridley Scott production.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer
Runtime: 132 mins
Release date: 5 January 2018
When the allegations began circling Kevin Spacey, Ridley Scott and his producers must have found themselves caught in a Catch-22. Release the film as originally shot, and face a public backlash; or recast Spacey and risk an audience distracted by speculations as to what was left on the cutting room floor. But, like the men of the fighting 256th squadron, All the Money in the World had to fly, with Christopher Plummer (retconned as Scott’s first choice) replacing Spacey in what, after all the controversy, turns out to be rather unremarkable film.
All the Money in the World centres around billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Spacey, then Plummer), and specifically the kidnap of his grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in 1973. Young Paul is grabbed on the streets of Rome (first shown to us in Fellini-esque black and white, before flowing into full colour) and ransomed for $17 million. Getty, despite his vast wealth, refuses to pay, justifying himself by claiming that acquiescence would only create a market for Getty grandchildren kidnappings.
Whatever the reasons, Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is understandably angry. She finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place, dealing with desperate kidnappers on one side, and her stubborn, miserly father-in-law on the other. Getty’s only concession is offering the assistance of his security chief, ex-CIA operative Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), in Abigail’s negotiations.
Anyone going to see All the Money in the World in the hopes of watching a film fall apart before their eyes will be sorely disappointed. Scott is a superlative cinematic craftsman; in just a scant few weeks he recast the role of Getty and reshot a sizeable portion of the film (Getty is no minor character, but forms the backbone of the film), and you won’t see a crack, seam, or join anywhere.
As for Christopher Plummer, while it’s easy to get distracted by thoughts of Kevin Spacey in prosthetic make-up, he is an outstanding Getty. This is a man for whom money and material wealth are ends in themselves. A man who refuses to pay for the return of his own grandson, but will happily pay for a painting of uncertain provenance. A man who will only negotiate with kidnappers when he can find a tax deductible way to do so. When Plummer’s Getty looks around, we can tell that he sees, not people, but investments.
If Plummer’s Getty is the backbone of All the Money in the World, then Michelle Williams’ Gail is the heart. Williams’ excels as the mother who is an outsider in the Getty family. She soon learns to play Getty at his own game, developing a poise and cunning in her fight to find her child. Next to Plummer and Williams, Mark Wahlberg looks a little out of his depth.
Unfortunately, these performances are wasted in a film that squanders its thematically fertile soil. Lip service is paid to the ethics of placing value on human beings (“An oil well in the desert or a human life, it’s all the same,” Chace tells Abigail), but lip service is all that’s paid. Scott, working from a script by David Scarpa (itself based on a book by John Pearson), is too concerned with narrative particulars, with the rather rote thriller aspects of the story, to pay any heed to the big questions the story raises.
Scott’s reluctance to deal with the issues inherent in his subject is highlighted in the film’s final scenes. There is a revelation of sorts, in which it is revealed that Getty’s vast fortune was tied up in a “charitable trust” (no actually charity was committed), the terms of which dictated that Getty couldn’t actually spend any of it. He could only invest his money, in, for example, priceless works of art. It’s a late game reveal, tossed off like a punchline, which sheds light on Getty’s refusal to cough up the cash to free his grandson. But wouldn’t it have been better to tell us this early on, to use these bizarre financial acrobatics to explore the culture of acquisitiveness that treats human beings like investments, or commodities to be traded?
It’s a real shame, because Scott needed a win after the disastrous Alien: Covenant. Instead of making a great film, to make up for that train wreck, he’s opted for the quieter approach: making a mediocre film so as not to rock the boat and draw attention to himself. All the Money in the World is a lavishly mounted period piece, full of the kind of fastidious attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott. As is so often the case with Scott’s films, though, he’s too focused on the details to see the bigger picture. He can’t see the forest for the meticulously costumed trees.
For a time, All the Money in the World will be known as the film Kevin Spacey wasn’t in. A thriller plot which too often steals the spotlight from a damning character study ensures that, given a few years, All the Money in the World will be known as just another unremarkable Ridley Scott production.