When it was announced only last month that Ridley Scott would be reshooting a sizable portion of his latest film, All the Money in the World, to replace the now persona non grata Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer and still make the movie’s coveted year end release date, people thought the prolific elder filmmaker had finally gone mad. Not that his decision making instincts were tone deaf or wildly off base, but because on a physical level no one thought that in less than a month Scott could recast, reshoot, re-edit, and create new visual effects and get the film into release. Well, Scott ended up doing all of that, and he deserves all the respect in the world for pulling it off. And with that obvious elephant in the room out of the way, we can finally move on to talking about how All the Money in the World is one of Scott’s best films in years and how it was a project worth salvaging on a tight schedule.
Based on a true story that grows so outlandishly stranger than fiction that it would make for an unlikely, but highly entertaining double bill with the recently released I, Tonya (or even with Scott’s bizarre Cormac McCarthy collaboration, The Counselor), All the Money in the World looks back on a 1973 kidnapping that made international headlines. Teenaged John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher off screen) is one of the fourteen grandsons of oil baron J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), a man so ruthlessly greedy he makes The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns look like Mother Teresa. Snatched off the streets of Rome while wandering alone at night, the younger Getty is held for a ransom of seventeen million dollars. His grandfather – the world’s first billionaire and the richest person to ever live if one factored in inflation – refuses to pay a single cent to get his favourite family member back. Part of the reason is his cheapness (and insistence that he has no actual cash on hand), but most of his dawdling and heel dragging is tied to his resentment of his grandson’s mother and his former daughter-in-law, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). The mother fights with Getty endlessly to get her son back, but is frozen out and stymied at every turn by the old man’s posturing, obstinance, and underhanded tactics to save a few bucks. The only concession that Getty gives to Gail is access to his in-house fixer and negotiator Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA agent who might be serving the tycoon’s bottom line needs more than he’s trying to get young John back home to safety.
Screenwriter David Scarpa (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Last Castle) adapts a portion of John Pearson’s 1995 biography of J. Paul Getty and provides plenty of head-spinning material for Scott and his cast to play with. There’s not much of any deeper meaning to anything happening in All the Money in the World, but as a series of escalations, near misses, double crosses, and surreal coincidences it amounts to a polished sort of prestigious thrill ride. With every passing moment, the situation at hand gets worse and worse, sometimes thanks to Getty’s petty penny pinching or because the ill equipped and bumbling band of Italian kidnappers keep finding ways to slip up. It’s a lengthy film, but not longer than it needs to be, because with every swerve it feels like the film could end at any moment with either a potentially happy or depressing ending. Even those familiar with the details of the Getty kidnapping will find themselves caught up in wondering what’s going to happen next.
It’s precisely the kind of material that Scott excels in producing. Every sequence – many of them dripping with period opulence and detail – crackles thanks to Scott’s mastery of pacing, dark humour, action, and his ability to let actors do their own thing while he makes it all look great. All the Money in the World is the kind of ambitious, historically minded potboiler that Ben Affleck tried to make with Argo (which was fine, but not Oscar worthy) and Live by Night, but Scott could really show him how it’s done with this effort.
Every wrinkle in the kidnapping and rescue plans escalates the film further and further towards an eventual breaking point, but it does so not through leaps, but through gradual escalations. Only a small handful of scenes and twists come out of nowhere, and for the most part Scott and Scarpa don’t try to pull one over on the audience. They appreciate the intelligence of the viewer to keep their disgust towards Getty’s greed in the forefront and to follow along at an appropriate pace. It’s an old school sort of thriller made by an old school filmmaker, but it’s pulled off without a whiff of pandering.
But even a skilled technician like Scott is nothing without a game set of performers, and the 80 year old director has some of his best leads on hand here. Williams’ embattled mother goes through emotional hell trying to deal with her former father in law, but she’s not a weak or wishy-washy stereotype that would be seen in most films set amid the wealthy in the 1970s. Watching Williams – who I’m convinced will be talked about in the next decade the way Meryl Streep is talked about in this decade – go toe to toe with Wahlberg and Plummer is riveting. Most of the film’s suspense can be seen on the face of her character to a point where Scott’s job is already halfway done just by having her around. As the moral and narrative centre of the film, Williams dominates this tale of Type A personalities posturing and preening in a bid to save face and cash.
As for Plummer, he should’ve been hired from the start. Not hiding under pounds of make-up and extremely good at playing an irascible, sarcastic, asshole with a perpetual shit-eating grin on his face, Plummer’s portrayal of Getty is unnervingly naturalistic and unsettling. Plummer has been great at playing villains in the past, but Getty might be the elder actor’s dark masterpiece. The fact that he might never have gotten the chance to sink his teeth into such a role is mindboggling in hindsight. I refuse to believe that this would have been a better film with a younger and more ironic performer like Kevin Spacey in the same role.
Wahlberg doesn’t have much to do in a role greatly smaller in impact than his co-stars, but he does get to display a side of his range that isn’t often showcased. His fixer is cool and calm under pressure. Fletcher can be visibly seen thinking five steps ahead of everyone else in the room simply from the look on his face and watching him surveying his surroundings. Wahlberg probably isn’t any filmmaker’s first choice to play cold and calculating, but Flecther is also a blunt instrument, which is exactly the kind of role the actor normally gets asked to play. It’s an unshowy, and generous turn from Wahlberg, and through subtlety it becomes one of his best efforts.
Not everything here works as well as it could. The production design is exceptional, but the cinematography is largely uninspired. A subplot involving the relationship between young Paul and a sympathetic kidnapper (French actor Romain Duris over-performing as a gruff Italian stereotype) doesn’t add any emotional heft despite getting a fair chunk of screen time. As the film enters its final act, obvious liberties are being taken to wrap things up tidily, showing events happening at the same time in ways that strain credulity. Perhaps worst of all, the kid who has been kidnapped, although admirably portrayed by younger Plummer, isn’t that interesting of a figure. Despite these relatively minor qualms, All the Money in the World remains compulsively watchable thanks to Scott and his cast’s force of will.
All the Money in the World could have ended up disastrous for all parties involved thanks to the unfortunate timing of one of its actors being recast amid a firestorm of abuse allegations, but somehow everyone involved pulled together and delivered not only one of the best films that they could under such pressure, but also one of the best films of the crowded holiday season. All the right decisions were made every step of the way – probably even before the recasting of Plummer – and the results are a strong film that was worth working overtime to save.
All the Money in the World opens in theatres everywhere on Monday, December 25, 2017.
Check out the trailer for All the Money in the World: