To hear Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” tell it, from about 1948 to his death in 1976, oilman J. Paul Getty was about as close to an American god-king as you could get. Indeed, according to an early scene in the film, Getty thought he was the reincarnation of the Roman emperor Hadrian. (No word on whether Getty took an Antinous).
Then again, also according to the thriller, Getty was one of the most financially rapacious men who ever walked the earth. He also might have been the cheapest. He had many palatial estates, yet installed a pay phone for guests. While in a hotel, he did his own laundry — why pay for it, even if he was worth a then-earth-shaking $2 billion?
And, most famously, when Getty’s teenage grandson Jean Paul Getty III was kidnapped by Italian mobsters in 1973, this man with, as the title notes, all the money in the world famously declined to pay the ransom. As in, refused to even consider it.
It is Getty the elder, as much as the grandson, who is the focus of “All the Money in the World,” which is why so many reacted with incredulity when Scott, in late November 2017, decided to reshoot that character’s scenes — 22 in all — with Christopher Plummer replacing Kevin Spacey after Spacey was accused of sexual assault and harassment.
This was not a small undertaking, with the movie’s opening just weeks away, but by God, Scott — a former TV ad man who likely knows a chance for publicity when he sees it — went and did it. And he made deadline. It was perhaps not without consequence for one performance, but the fact that this movie works as well as it does is some kind of weird miracle of precise directing.
The film’s other key component is Michelle Williams as Gail Harris, the mother of then-16-year-old Getty III (Charlie Plummer, looking exactly like “Man Who Sold the World”-era Bowie and no relation to Christopher).
Complete with a Hepburn/old money accent, Williams is excellent, if a tad overratable, as Harris, a mother stuck between her love for her son and her loathing for the family to which he is heir apparent. When her ex-husband ran off with a mistress and opium, she kept the kids and took zero money for herself.
Harris is pretty well broke, her ex-father-in-law likes his art collection more than actual humans, and her only hope is Getty’s fixer, an ex-CIA operative named Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg).
Chace is the sort of guy who brags that he doesn’t carry a gun because it will ruin the line of his suit, but his swagger is undercut a bit by the fact that he’s all but owned by Getty. He seems bad at his job, based on how poorly the negotiations for Getty III go. And Wahlberg is kind of terrible. Ol’ Marky Mark, who can be terrific, has many scenes with Plummer, and based on the Wahlberg-doing-Wahlberg performance, any sense of Chace as a character was either lost in the reshoots or never was there in the first place.
Still, “All the Money,” working off a fun David Scarpa script “inspired by” (we’ll come back to that phrase in a moment) John Pearson’s “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty,” is a piece of bravura filmmaking.
It’s a nice bounce back for those who still value Scott as a big, slick, fun filmmaker after the lousy “Alien: Covenant.” Scott knows his way around tension and release, and, even at a baggy two hours and change, this film rarely flags.
It should be remembered that Getty III went through a very particular hell — he was held captive by a mix of Red Bridgade terrorists and Mafia hoods (the film fudges the heck out this) for not days, not weeks, but months, his body being sold off to an investor at one point. The young Getty has in his corner a thug named Cinquanta (an excellent Romain Duris), who becomes sympathetic to his victim, especially when it becomes clear that the man with all the money in the world truly does not care if his grandson lives or dies.
It should also be remembered that the phrase “inspired by” appears no fewer than three times during various credit scenes — don’t go to this thing for historical verisimilitude.
Go for the thrill of the chase, go for the excellent yet fictional climax, go for the parallels between Harris’ war against the Getty empire and the kidnappers’ war on capitalism (a war that is impossible to wage without, yes, money), go for Williams’ accent, and go for Plummer, who does arrogant and disdainful better than anyone in the business. Rarely (extremely rarely, as it turned out) has a film been so tailored for such a skill set.
‘ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD’
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer
Rating: R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Theaters (opens Dec. 25): Barton Creek, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Pflugerville 20, Southpark, Westgate