Monday, January 08, 2018

All the Money in the World

In 1965, J. Paul Getty wrote a book called How to be Rich. Not how to get rich, mind you; this one was aimed at those who had already amassed their wealth and were now thinking about the best way to use it. I wonder if the book had a chapter on what to do if a family member was kidnapped and held for ransom? If so, it was probably a short one. In 1973, when Getty was regarded as the richest man who had ever lived, his teenage grandson Paul was kidnapped in Rome, with his captors demanding $17 million for his safe release. Getty's response was to do nothing. Months passed, an ear was received in the post, but Getty insisted he would not pay a penny; unless, of course, the ransom was dropped to an amount that was tax-deductible. That might stir his interest.

It's a fascinating story, and Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World gets right into it, staging Paul's kidnapping as soon as the opening credits have elapsed. But then the film begins jumping around in time, sketching in Getty's tenuous relationship with his family, and thereafter it never quite finds its focus again. Is this the story of young Paul (Charlie Plummer), stuck in a filthy cell with the increasingly agitated kidnappers? Is our protagonist Gail (Michelle Williams), the boy's anxious but determined mother? Perhaps the lead is Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg, never looking entirely comfortable in the role), the ex-CIA man instructed by Getty to deal with the problem as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. It doesn't feel like any of these characters are really driving the film, and they're all ultimately reduced to thin supporting parts, swamped by the shadow of the man playing JP Getty – and the man who's not.

All the Money in the World is destined to be remembered as the film that swapped out one key actor for another within weeks of its premiere, with the release schedule not skipping a beat and the film generating plenty of headlines. Aside from one awkward shot in the desert early on, the presence of Christopher Plummer (no relation to his young co-star Charlie) in place of Kevin Spacey is seamless; in fact, it's hard to picture Spacey pulling off this role so effortlessly. Plummer's Getty is cold and aloof, but pragmatic; a man utterly single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and power. When asked what on earth could possibly make him feel secure, he simply replies, “More.” He is a man more interested in things than people – beautiful artworks never change, he reasons, they never let you down – and there is a cruel irony in the way he coos “beautiful child” over a newly purchased painting as his grandson suffers. It's a plum role, and Plummer makes the most of it.

Plummer also benefits from playing a character who can appear in just a few scenes while maintaining a constant presence throughout. The rest of the actors are defeated by a film that never gives them enough room to dig below the surface or give us a real sense of who these people are. When Gail first hears about her son's kidnapping over the phone, Scott abruptly cuts into an expository flashback instead of giving us a moment with her as she processes this news, and the film is marked throughout by remarkably inelegant transitions. I think Williams is giving a really strong performance here, but it feels chopped up and scattered, reduced to a few brief emotional bursts that don't develop or connect. She and the miscast Wahlberg never come into focus while the more theatrical villainy offered by Plummer and Romain Duris – as a kidnapper who forms a tenuous bond with Paul – allows them to make a more vivid impact in the time allotted to them.

Not many filmmakers are reliably efficient enough to have been capable of pulling off the Spacey-Plummer switcheroo so quickly, but that is all Scott brings to the film – efficiency. All the Money in the World just plods from one scene to the next, never generating or sustaining any kind of momentum or tension. It has no life, no pulse, and no sense of depth beyond the basic story it tells. I guess the film is about the corrosive power of wealth, but it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about this and it feels like there are far more interesting wrinkles in the narrative that Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa are failing to explore. For example, the film ends by telling us that Getty’s vast art collection formed the basis of the Getty Museum after his death, but my favourite postscript detail is one I discovered for myself after I got home from the screening. When Getty died in 1976, he left his son John just $500 in his will. And his grandson, the one who had spent months in captivity? He got nothing.