If its production history weren’t overshadowed by the last-minute decision to reshoot one major actor’s scenes with another, “All the Money in the World” would be a serviceable look at the perils of greed. As it stands, it’s a minor miracle. Ridley Scott’s slick dramatization of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s resistance to paying ransom for his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping was ready two months ago, with Kevin Spacey under mounds of makeup in the pivotal role as the octogenarian Getty. When Spacey’s career collapsed in the wake of sexual assault allegations, Scott replaced him with real-life octogenarian Christopher Plummer, and he did it with the ease of a brain surgeon who saves lives in his sleep.
Plummer is a world-class performer who endows Getty with a smarmy obstinance that aligns with the movie’s blunt storytelling. However, Plummer doesn’t dominate the movie, which largely involves his frantic daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and ex-CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) struggling to negotiate for the missing boy’s release while the stingy Getty refuses to pay the ransom. The result is an occasionally gripping but disposable look at the perils of extreme wealth and high-stakes negotiations that — considering the $8 million Sony spent on the fly to stitch Plummer in — now plays like a metaphor for its own dash to the finish line.
While he’s a supporting player, Getty looms large as an idea, one more relevant than ever: It’s the early ’70s, and he’s at the end of a career building a profitable oil empire that seems to exist solely to sustain his sense of power. He holds relatives at an arm’s length, shrugs off requests for financial assistance, and only invites an estranged son into his orbit to give him a dead-end job. Years later, that son is a drug-addicted loser; when Harris divorces him, the older Getty refuses to pay her alimony and begrudgingly allows custody of her three children. Even family threatens his fortune.
Williams gives Harris the measured cadences of a woman trained to navigate the privileged classes, and her early confrontations with Getty endow the movie with purpose. Unfolding in flashback, they also explain why Getty’s reticent to open his wallet for kidnappers. His estate filled with precious art, every penny informs his status and giving any of it up would leave him vulnerable to… something. Prone to one-liners asserting his god-like wealth (“If you can count your money, you’re not a billionaire”), he’s equally frugal for reasons he can never entirely articulate, even as Harris pleads with him to save her son’s life.
At first, Fletcher — who also manages Getty’s business empire — serves his yes-man role dutifully, suggesting the boy may have kidnapped himself. Even when that theory falls apart, Getty’s adamant. Maybe it’s because he has 14 grandchildren; like the paintings that line his walls, one possession matters less than the overall collection. Or maybe it’s some nonsense he once told the boy about being a Roman emperor in his previous life. Getty doesn’t spend money so much as he relishes owning it.
Yet even as his resistance sits at the center of “All the Money in the World,” it’s also a MacGuffin that allows Scott to stage unnerving scenes around the terrified John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, all furtive glances and nervous tics under a mop of hippie hair) as he contends with kidnappers uncertain what to do with him. While mafia henchman Cinquanta (Romain Duris) forms a curious bond with the boy, the uncompromising Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangeta puts Paul in constant peril. (One clever fake-out suggests Getty has finally decided to negotiate — only to see he’s buying more useless artwork.)
Scott is one of the greatest large-scale suspense filmmakers working today, and he rises above the screenplay’s obvious beats with workmanlike efficiency. Arguments and sullen strategy sessions between Getty, Harris, and Fletcher border on shrill, but Paul’s experiences under the duress of grimy makeshift prisons in the Italian countryside maintain a taut, pulpy quality loaded with tension. We see a gripping escape attempt in which every shot and sound builds into a fiery crescendo; moments later, a Grand Guignol-inspired ear mutilation makes the torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” look tame.
Beyond these shocking sequences “All the Money in the World” can feel rote. From distracting shifts between black-and-white and color to the period-appropriate music cues (“Time of the Season” is practically conjured by the screenplay on autopilot), the movie attempts edgy formalism like a Scorsese crime saga turned up to 11. However, David Scarpa’s screenplay (adapted from John Pearson’s 1995 tome “Painfully Rich”) operates at about half that volume. The bulk of the drama involves angry, flustered exchanges between Fletcher (Wahlberg, furrowing his brow so hard it almost falls off) and Harris, whose capacity to claw her way into controlling the situation stands out as the movie’s true selling point. Williams imbues Harris with a determination that speaks to the challenges of permeating Getty’s fortress of solitude.
Of course, she contends with quite the scene-chewing monstrosity. Plummer imbues his avaricious loner with a kind of snarky irreverence unimaginable in the showboating Spacey’s hands; the final version of the character comes across as Scrooge with a smile. Still, neither the actor nor the audience can overcome the heavy-handed nature of his character; at one point he’s told, “You’re not a person anymore. You’re a symbol.” Well, duh.
As an experiment in filmmaking trickery, “All the Money in the World” is an extraordinary viewing experience; without that, it’s a compulsively watchable rumination on the worst of the one percent. Ironically, the movie works best when Getty’s nowhere to be seen, a phantom responsible for a world that exists at the mercy of his whims. As we see global wealth mandating the priorities for some of our world’s most powerful leaders, “All the Money in the World” has a topical bite that transcends entertainment value.
Earlier this year, in “Alien: Covenant,” Scott showed he can still generate visceral terror by trapping interstellar travelers in closed spaces with carnivorous aliens; “All the Money in the World” is a reminder that his mastery of fear and discomfort defies genre. He’s a master showman, and there’s plenty to enjoy about the movie’s twisted saga, but it has a cookie-cutter appeal on par with Getty’s superficial standards.
“All the Money in the World” opens theatrically on December 25, 2017.