Let’s get Kevin Spacey out of the way first. He’s a superb actor and a great mimic, but when he appeared in a police station beaten and bruised from a late night stroll in a London park I knew it was only a matter of time before he wrecked his career. I have met so many men like him. They know they have a dangerous sexual compulsion, and they know it will destroy them, but they just can’t stop.
In any event, I have no idea why Ridley Scott cast Spacey as the miserly bastard that was the reclusive multi-millionaire J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. Christopher Plummer was made for the role. He is quite wonderful in it – a gift of a role and a great way to top a fine acting career.
I guess Scott felt Plummer’s advanced years (87) made the role and its twenty-two scenes too demanding of his stamina. Either that, or the insurance company refused to back him. (Actors get dumped if the insurance broker refuses the risk.) Plummer was called in at the thirteenth hour to replace the disgraced Spacey.
From the stills I’ve seen Stacey appears heavily weighed down by prosthetics as the old Getty, but was probably about the right age for Getty the young oil billionaire. Plummer just about gets by as the younger Getty, his stumbling gait betraying his advanced years.
Ridley Scott secured another $10 million to reshoot the scenes rather than watch $40 million dollars of a completed movie ready for distribution go down the proverbial toilet pan. Stars in those scenes agreed to the reshoot at no fee. The result is seamless.
Citizen Kane it ain’t, but nor is it a bore, although films about the kidnapping of rich people’s kids appear three a decade making this one just on the wrong side of predicable. (I watched Mel Gibson’s Ransom only the other night bringing a sense of deja vu.) Ridley Scott has had a stretch of misfires but this time he keeps a tight hold of the storyline, which is a difficult thing because he has Getty’s extensive back story to lay out before the kidnap of his nephew. This is accomplished rather too swiftly in short vignettes that hop about from one important moment to the next.
We start with Getty’s head of security, a former CIA operative, Fletcher Chase, (Mark Wahlberg) negotiating with the Saudis for the oil rights to their huge deposits that Getty’s oil surveyor discovered. Getty wants the biggest share because “it will cost so much to dig it out of the ground” and they, the tribes involved, proud but penniless, agree. (Years later Arabian nations got themselves organised to dictate the price per barrel and OPEC took shape, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.)
Getty became the richest man in history and remained so for years afterwards. No one knew because he kept quiet, living modestly in a hotel suite in Paris. It was a diligent female reporter who chanced upon his millions – no tax paid, and followed the money to its owner. She blew the gaff on his existence in a newspaper article headed simply “The Richest Man in the World.” From that moment on the world descended upon him, and every begging letter ever written landed on his desk.
What the film doesn’t tell us is, Getty paid his surveyor the total sum of $12,000 for finding the oil. Oh, and his travelling and hotel expenses.
From there the story takes us straight to the kidnap of John Paul Getty III, (Charlie Plummer – no relation) wandering aimlessly around the red light district of Rome. The painfully protracted negotiations over the ransom take up the rest of the story: lots of phone calls between the kidnappers, Getty’s lawyers, and Chase, and the distraught mother, (Michelle Williams). The Italian hoodlums are led by ‘Cinquanta’ – Italian for fifty – played by a seriously over-the-top French actor (Romain Duris).
From the moment he passes a reefer to Paul in his makeshift prison somewhere out in the countryside, Cinquanto is sympathetic to Paul’s plight. “I tell you all about me, and then you tell me all about you.” But Cinquanta is a small potato among tough if inexpert hoodlums and he soon finds himself out of his depth.
Having read a biography of J. Paul Getty back in the day, and knowing of the kidnapping facts, I’d say Scott keeps things as factual as possible, right down to the surgical removal of one of Paul’s ears, a scene I found unnecessarily graphic.
In among those early moments is young Getty’s father, John Paul Getty Jr, (Andrew Buchan) the only son of J. Paul Getty, boozer, drug user, debaucher, hedonist, but no head on his shoulders, the kind of waster one expects a son to be when he knows his dad owns more wealth that some nations, and he will never match him in achievement.
In a voice-over at the start soon dropped, Paul the would-be captive, tells us “It’s like we’re from another planet where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light.” There the story teller stops filling in the gaps. We are left to witness the rest.
I suspect All the Money in the World is meant to illustrate how the ultra-rich are never happy – or so my guardian taught me; they are different from you and me. Life has taught me that that adage is tosh. When I’ve money in the bank I can get depressed!
Anyhow, J Paul Getty got a lot of happiness out of buying great art. He loved anything from the Roman period, anything, paintings, statues, busts, vases, it didn’t matter what it was as long as it was priceless. And whatever the price was he haggled it down.
I asked myself why Scott had chosen the story. Is he, himself now aged 80, trying to come to terms with the loneliness it can bring, your family and friends dead or distant, no one but staff around you, and a visit from the daily postman? It’s hard to tell because the film isn’t about J. Paul Getty, it’s about a fairly mundane kidnapping, with the exception the protagonists are mega-wealthy, and the paparazzi ready to kill to get a scoop. There’s not much suspense in that scenario.
Indeed, watching All the Money in the World, I kept wondering if there was a better film following the rise and rise of Getty himself, culminating in the building of his Roman Villa in Malibu – an exquisitely beautiful home housing Roman fine art, one to visit (by appointment only) a place my spirit sits to this day warming in the garden’s sunny corner scribbling film ideas and scenes.
His other art collection is housed in an ugly giant palace of a museum on the hills over-looking Los Angeles, completed after he died, a gigantic dump of contemporary architecture, complete with a brutal modernist garden design by a man who must have plastic flowers at home, interesting only for the huge rubber pads it all rests on to withstand the worst of earthquakes.
Meanwhile, the Getty Trust and its millions continues a policy of gobbling up the world’s best art for its collections, against the protests of the cash strapped rest of us.
The performances are all a bit so-so with the marvellous exception of Plummer. I just could not relate to Michelle Williams mother, low key and sullen at first, until she explodes and becomes all theatrical, just like the comic Italian key kidnapper. Williams never quite conveys a demented or even distraught mother. She’s given the occasional outburst to deliver, but it only makes the rest of her behaviour seem oddly dull.
Wahlberg handles Chase, Getty’s security chief and confidante, well enough, but there isn’t a flicker of an emotional bond between him and Gail despite his task of negotiating with the kidnappers and watching over her. If Scott asked them to begin with calm and then escalate the drama, neither succeed. Only Wahlberg makes a mark, if you’ll excuse the pun, because we know he’s set to be Getty’s nemesis.
But there are three things that make the film worth the price of the ticket. The first is Scott’s ability to keep a story moving. You are motivated to watch and follow the drama, not giving too much thought to the holes in it. Secondly Dariusz Walski’s photography is outstanding, every frame, every scene, every tracking shot and pan, a pleasure to watch.
And lastly there’s Plummer’s towering performance as the central character. You’re glued to his every move, his every side-long glance, his every gesture. You can’t believe he’s so mean, and then he winks and smiles and for a moment all is forgiven. I thought the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Oscar belonged to Willem Dafoe for his brow-beaten apartment janitor in The Florida Project, but I’m afraid he will have wait because it belongs to Plummer.
There are other delights: J. Paul Getty’s mansion, crammed with artwork and artifacts, is spot on, echoing footfalls down long corridors and all. The Italian countryside is pleasant to see on a cold winter’s evening outside the cinema. So too are brief glimpses of Marrakech and Laurence of Arabia desert panoramas. And of course, there’s the joy of seeing Rome in its hey day, with the bonus of classic Italian cars, plus Lambretta and Vespa scooters to dribble over.
I wanted the film to deserve four stars. It works well as a piece of cinema but doesn’t rise to anything special. It almost does, probably Scott’s best film for a long time, but the flaws are too many to justify four.
- Star Rating: Three and half
- Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Writer: David Scarpa (Based on the book by John Pearson)
- Cinematographer: Dariusz Walski
- Composer: Daniel Pemberton
- Rating: 15
- Duration: 2 hours 12 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?