Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: If Oscar voting went more along the lines of the Heisman than the NFL Hall of Fame (where off-field issues aren’t considered in someone’s potential enshrinement in Canton), Christopher Plummer would rightfully walk home with another statue for his work in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World.
Stepping up to replace Kevin Spacey after the disgraced actor’s predatory behavior was revealed to the world, Plummer shot his scenes in nine days, and added a level of intense gravitas to what looked like a miserably silly performance from a prosthetics-laden Spacey. He’s by far the main reason to see this film: as billionaire J. Paul Getty, he’s the kind of charismatic asshole that you can’t take your eyes off, and Plummer’s performance just feels so natural and easy-going you’d be astonished to find out that Sony passed him over for the other actor (he was always Scott’s first choice). He never loses sight of the human element that makes Getty interesting as a pseudo-antagonist: That he, as the “richest man in human history,” has been beset by hangers-on and people who only tolerate his company for his money and, as such, prefers the company of works of priceless art to, say, members of his family. He’s sort of right, honestly, because he’s the only character in this film that rises above their usefulness to advancing the plot, and they’re as stiff and empty as the fakes hanging on Getty’s walls.
Yes, this is a story ostensibly about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson by Italian hoods, but it’s more about the kind of bureaucratic and ego-fueled fuck-ups that prevented J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to the MVP) from being returned to his family for months and after some pretty intense mutilation. His father (Andrew Buchan) is no use: He’s a drug-addled pal of Mick Jagger, hiding out in an Morocco opium den surrounded by prostitutes, his mother (Michelle Williams) is destitute, left only with the Getty name and custody of her children after her divorce, and doesn’t have the money to spare for a $17 million dollar ransom, and his grandfather won’t pay a cent. However, he does task his business manager (and former C.I.A. operative) Fletcher Chase (Marky Mark) to bring the boy home, with his superior negotiation skills and not much else; he doesn’t carry a gun, after all, because it’ll ruin the lining of his suit. Chase begins his time as hostage negotiator by immediately claiming that he’s solved the boy’s kidnapping — that it’s just a ruse to pry money from the Old Man’s hands and that he’ll be home soon enough — and then promptly continues to mess up once he realizes that he’s, in fact, mistaken. Meanwhile, Getty III begins making friends with a kidnapper known only as Cinquanta (French actor Romain Duris), who starts to have his doubts about what he’s doing.
It’s a fascinating historical premise for a film (or a TV series, given that Danny Boyle is currently working on for FX), but it’s executed here in a really middling fashion. The screenplay, penned by The Day the Earth Stood Still remake scribe David Scarpa, picks up and drops threads and devices at a moment’s notice. Getty III begins the film with a narration about his relationship with his grandfather, but that’s abandoned as soon as he starts spending significant time off-screen. Certain character motivations, like Chase’s, shift about given the needs of the moment, rather than in service of their arc or personality, and the only person written with any true consistency is Getty himself.
The actors, outside of the exemplary Plummer, do a decent enough job trying to pull all of these parts together, but they can’t conceal the inherently threadbare nature of what they’re working with. Williams is as solid as she always is, and it’s always fun to watch Marky Mark get frustrated by dumb things, but it’s just kind of bland, and, at worst, ugly. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who did excellent work on Scott’s Alien: Covenant earlier this year, is constrained by his need to imitate David Fincher at every turn, with the same dark digital blue/orange color grading that’s defined the filmmaker’s most recent output. It’s unappealing and oddly flat, outside of the scenes set in Getty’s English estate, where the tone and color seem to come together better than they do in, say, Rome.
One can see why Scott would be attracted to a story like this: It’s his chance to put a reverse spin on the kind of fascination that we’ve had with the rich over the years, and it feels, at times, like a traditional structured-and-paced Citizen Kane with a kidnapping plot thrown in for good measure. Plummer’s truly standout scene comes as a misdirect: At a certain point in the film, he decides that it’s “time” and he attends a meeting with a man who seems like he might be connected to the Italian mafia. He brings in a briefcase full of cash, and asks to see the “proof.” Perhaps he’s actually paying his grandson’s ransom! It’s about time! He moves towards the proof, mounted on top of a table. It’s actually a canvas, a Madonna and Child wrapped behind a cloth cover. “Pay the man,” he says to his assistant. It’s his acquisition of a representation of familial love, and the irony of him buying this painting for millions of dollars while his grandson is getting his ear chopped off by mafiosi is potent and interesting, especially with how it’s used at the film’s conclusion.
Yet All the Money in the World is narratively clumsy in ways that define Scott’s most mediocre work and can’t live up to its behind-the-scenes drama. Still, I’d recommend you see it, just for Plummer’s performance, and to pay tribute to the incredible effort that he and Scott put into changing this film for the better.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlsaysficus.