All the Money in the World review – a meditation on how money corrupts
Let us put aside for a moment, if you will, the controversy of leading actor Kevin Spacey being replaced with Christopher Plummer in reshoots that took place a month before the film’s release, and focus on the film as it is presented to us.
There was a time when oil magnate J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the history of the world, which made his choice to not pay the ransom of his grandson John Paul “Paolo” Getty III all the more confusing and bizarre.
Director Ridley Scott actually has previous with the Getty family – John Paul Getty III’s son Balthazar Getty was one of the main actors in Scott’s 90s movie White Squall. Here, Scott tells the story of how one man’s empire made everyone around him suffer. Scott is not afraid of tackling big stories over various lands, of mixing up his timelines or even filming in Italy. In fact, this has all the Scott hallmarks, and he is clearly happy to be telling this story.
In the first half of the film, we’re introduced to the set up: John Paul Getty III, known by his family as Paul and by Italians as Paolo, is taken off the street one night and held hostage, at which point we flashback to the childhood of Paul. His father, John Paul Getty Jr, is a drinker, a layabout and someone who has no real connection to his king-like father. However, he loves his wife – Abigail, and his four kids; it’s happy families until money issues make it imperative that he take a job working for his father’s oil empire.
The introduction of J. Paul Getty is clearly something Scott relishes; the rich man who wilfully gives away “priceless” items to his grandson with whom he seems to share a special bond, the awkward talk with his son, and the callous way he replies to pleas for money from strangers. Not to mention his absent status as a parent followed by his rhapsodising about the importance of family.
True or untrue, Christopher Plummer plays the role of Getty Sr. like a classic Shakespearean miser, Richard III or Claudius, unaware their kingdom will fall because of their own ego. Getty is portrayed as a man who doesn’t really like people and likes being reminded of his wealth even less. He’s a man who knows he’s rich and doesn’t need people around him. Scott plays a lot of his skinflint ways for laughs; the absurdity of him doing his own laundry in a hotel, his bartering of money for an original Monet painting, the fact that he has a payphone for guests in his estate. These are all gags that when seen as statements of truth make the wit of the guys behind The Simpson’s Mr Burns looks positively downplayed.
On the opposite end is Michelle Williams as strung out mother Gail Getty. There’s not much for her to do in the film really except be forever upset and fed up. A strong-willed as she is, Gail is still a woman in the 70s; her opinions matter not to the men around her, people talk about her but not to her, and as someone with a moral integrity she becomes the core of the film in a particular way.
When the film moves away from this strange Dallas-style drama of warring family members and moves into the kidnap drama, it excels. Regardless of how true the kidnapping side of the film is there is no denying the brilliance of Charlie Plummer’s performance of Paul. Given very little to do he manages to absolutely smash the role; even for an adult he has a child-like face, framed by a mop of increasingly unkempt hair, and he is almost girlish in his appearance, with his pretty face all the more upsetting for being deformed.
In all this drama one of the quietly stand out roles is Romain Duris as one of the captors, Cinquanta. Duris manages to make his role of the captor who appears to be a better man than he lets on work well. What could have been a reverse Stockholm role, and one that could easily become laughable becomes believable in Duris’ hands. He turns the untrustworthy, dirty looking kidnapper into a character who, in many ways, is not for the kidnapping by the film’s end.
The weakest link of the cast is definitely Mark Wahlberg. This isn’t entirely his fault, although he is prone to trying to be an everyman hero, and – taking his political views out of it – the role is obviously crafted not from fact but for the film. From his name – Fletcher Chase – to his actions, to becoming the voice of reason to Getty, it’s hard not to roll your eyes as he becomes a heroic figure in a film that before was really about people with layers.
The film also looses it’s grip in the final stretch as it adds a chase through Rome’s streets along with a strange Getty running around his house motif which doesn’t work as well as Scott thinks it does, nor does the near-comic musical cue that plays whenever Getty does something cheap.
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It also doesn’t help that the film lingers too much on one particularly violent moment, and an informative one for Paul that becomes a little too exploitative, as if Scott knows people are waiting for that thing to happen. It becomes a moment played for the crowds, and goes too far into just being nasty, rather disgusting and very exploitative.
Even so, with all its production troubles, and the story being so strange it must be fiction, along with the renewed scrutiny it’s under, All the Money in the World becomes a meditation on how money corrupts. Getty is by no means a good person, he’s cheap, and prone to paranoia, and the film shows that this is nothing to aspire to. Even in the portrayal of Gail, someone who shuns the money, she doesn’t fully embody idealism, she is someone who by the end comes to think like a Getty. A film of this nature is not going to set the box office alight, clearly, but come awards season, it’s not hard to see why Plummer is getting all the plaudits in the world.