“All the Money in the World” Delivers Decreasing Returns

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017)

In case you missed it, there was some drama on the set of All the Money in the World within the last two months. Or, rather, to be more precise, director Ridley Scott reconvened the movie’s actors to recreate the set, which had long been wrapped. Following the many claims of sexual harassment against Kevin Spacey, Scott deemed the actor’s presence in the film, as billionaire John Paul Getty, far too toxic for the box-office prospects, and so recast and reshot Christopher Plummer as Getty. The good news is that the octogenarian Plummer (Beginners), is excellent, as always, and though I initially entertained myself trying to imagine what the movie would have been like with Spacey in the role, there are no lingering traces of the man in the current cut: the expunging was seamless, in other words. The less good news is that the film has other problems – unrelated to that character – deeply embedded in the script (by David Scarpa, The Day the Earth Stood Still remake). What starts out as an alternatingly fun and chilling period thriller quickly devolves, in its second half, into a rudderless mess.

“Inspired by true events” (from a book by John Pearson) – as an opening title card tells us – All the Money in the World tells the story of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III – called Paul – the grandson of the original J.P., the  “richest man in history” (as we learn from another title card). When his grandfather refused to pay the ransom money – for many reasons, including greed and his belief that to do so would mean that the rest of his grandchildren would then also be kidnapped – things went south, and though Paul was, eventually, rescued, the emotional and physical costs for him (including the loss of an ear) and for his family were high. “All the money in the world” cannot save you from corruption of the soul and heart, apparently – a good lesson for our time (and for all times), in which Republicans believe that the wealthy need more money than they already have – for sure, but not enough of a thesis to carry the movie forward when its plotting falls apart.

There is good stuff, at first, however. Scott’s early montages explaining Getty’s accumulation of wealth and power (thanks to Saudi oil, among other things), intercut with the present-day (1973) kidnapping and family drama, give the first half of the film an energy that promises great rewards, a promise thereafter unfulfilled. The performances are mostly first-rate, fortunately. Michelle Williams (Certain Women), as Paul’s mother Gail – who married into the family and then antagonized them by divorcing her husband, addiction-prone J. Paul Getty, Jr. – especially shines as a woman desperate to save her son, and who must accept all manner of indignities to get even a fraction of the ransom money. French actor Romain Duris (The New Girlfriend) is also fine as one of the Italian kidnappers, and Charlie Plummer (King Jack, and no relation to Christopher) holds his own as the miserable Paul. Mark Wahlberg (Patriots Day), sadly, as Fletcher Chase, a former CIA operator now turned helpmate to the old man, though he tries to make the most with a woefully underwritten part, is all but superfluous.

And then there’s Christopher Plummer, who makes up for so many of the script’s deficiencies, though there is only so much he can do. He is magnetic, holding our attention throughout. By the end, I didn’t care any more how Spacey would have done the role. This is Plummer’s and Williams’ movie, and their performances are the reason to see it. You don’t need “all the money in the world,” it turns out; two great actors will suffice.

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