First things first: Christopher Plummer, who was called in at the last minute to reshoot all of the scenes involving the disgraced Kevin Spacey in the kidnapping drama All the Money in the World, is terrific as the mercurial, reclusive John Paul Getty, the unspeakably wealthy industrialist whose grandson was held for ransom in Italy in 1973. I don't know how much of his footage was merely cut in and how much of it involved "digitally" replacing Spacey (whatever that means), but it's all seamlessly done; based on the final product of the film directed by Ridley Scott, I'd never have guessed that it was all accomplished over the past several weeks. But I also can't imagine how Spacey could ever have pulled off this part in the first place. Plummer’s Getty is reserved, brooding, a grim figure increasingly adrift in his own mind. Spacey has always been more theatrical, more active. He wouldn’t have made Getty’s isolation feel nearly as desolate or as poignant. Before the switch, this must have been a significantly different movie.
So how is this movie? Handsome and serviceable, though strangely pointless. We first see Getty’s grandson, teenager J. Paul Getty III, aka Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Chris), wandering aimlessly among some Roman prostitutes late one night, when a van pulls up and he's grabbed by masked men. Before it settles into the story of how Paul’s mom Gail (Michelle Williams) tried to convince the crotchety, indifferent elder Getty to pay the ransom, the film hops around across the years providing context into the family’s fortune and its dynamics: We see the elder Getty's 1948 deal with Saudi Arabia, which helped build his insane wealth; how a high-level job offer from dear old dad turns the lives of Gail and her husband John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), from a quiet, modest American existence to a decadent European one; Gail’s husband’s early-’70s descent into drugs and hedonism; the nasty custody suit in the wake of their bitter separation. "We look like you, but we’re not like you," Paul tells us in voiceover, early in the film. “It’s like we’re from another planet where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light.”
All the Money in the World is meant to be the proof of his words, I suppose, showing us how the ultra-rich are different from you and me. Or maybe it's meant to be the opposite — proving that the rich are like the rest of us? I’m not sure. What follows is a fairly conventional tale of a kidnapping as Gail and a former CIA operative named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) working for the elder Getty try to figure strategies for dealing with the culprits. Meanwhile, the abductors themselves, a somewhat bumbling lot, try to figure out what to do with Paul when it starts to look like the money might not be forthcoming. One kidnapper, Cinquanta (played by a hilariously over the top Romain Duris, so scruffy you can practically smell him), strikes a kind of testy friendship with the boy.
These are all common beats in such tales. Here’s another one, kind of: That John Paul Getty, supposedly the richest man in the world at the time, seems to show little concern for his grandson is certainly notable, but the fact that he refuses even to consider paying the ransom doesn’t actually change the circumstances of the kidnapping all that much. As a matter of narrative, the effect is the same as any official saying they don’t negotiate with terrorists, which is usually what happens in these movies. The story’s suspense, in other words, is rooted in the same things it always is.
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Indeed, watching All the Money in the World, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow seen this film before. Maybe that’s because there have been a number of excellent ones made over the years about kidnappings in Italy. In its broad strokes, Scott’s picture often resembles Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man; but I was also reminded of Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night. Elements of the Getty kidnapping apparently also inspired the novel Man on Fire, which was (loosely) adapted by Ridley’s brother Tony Scott with Denzel Washington in 2004.
So why this story, why now? Scott does seem to be getting at something about the loneliness and paralysis of wealth. Over the course of the film, we go from seeing the elder Getty as a figure of great power to one of no power at all, and that is perhaps the most fascinating part of the movie — aided immeasurably, again, by Plummer’s lovely performance. But that arc doesn’t feel vitally connected to the predictable, uninspiring genre beats of the kidnapping case.
The other performances are all over the place, possibly on purpose. Desperate and flamboyant, Duris spits out his dialogue in a thick Italian accent. It takes the rest of the cast the whole movie to get to his histrionic levels: Williams doesn’t quite convey the fear and anxiety of her character at first; maybe we’re meant to see how the need to keep up appearances has rubbed off on Gail? But eventually, Williams is hamming it up, too. Wahlberg delivers most of his dialogue in a monotone, save for a big speech at the end that he instead delivers in a really fast monotone. Perhaps Scott is deliberately coaxing these specific performances, suggesting how the characters are gradually losing their insulated calm. But it still doesn’t quite add up to an interesting or particularly moving experience.
Scott does remain capable of occasionally stirring images, and you can see why he was drawn to this milieu: The elder Getty’s mansion, crammed with artwork and artifacts, is like a haunted castle out of a horror movie; this sad, rich monster has placed his trust in objects because objects don’t betray him, don’t demand anything from him. The Italian countryside is often majestic as are the glimpses we see (in flashbacks) of decadent mansions in Marrakech and sensuous Saudi deserts. Of course, none of it feels lived-in or real. It’s easy to appreciate the director’s eye even while being left mostly cold by everything else. It’s almost as if, in trying to make a film about the gilded prison of wealth, Ridley Scott has made one about the gilded prison of empty, beautiful images.