All the Money in the World
Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer
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…a crime thriller concerned with the dehumanising, alienating effects of concentrated wealth.
1973: J. P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer), 16 year old grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), is snatched from the streets of Rome by a criminal gang. The kidnappers want 17 million dollars – money that Paul’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), estranged from his birth father, doesn’t have. The boy’s grandfather could pay, of course, but he refuses, saying that conceding to the kidnappers will open up his other grandchildren to similar attacks. He tasks former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) with finding the missing boy and effecting his release.
The rich are different from you and me, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that axiom serves as the central thesis for All the Money in the World, adapted by David Scarpa (The Last Castle) from the non-fiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson. Structurally it’s a crime thriller, but thematically its concerns are the dehumanising, alienating effects of concentrated wealth.
It’s a theme embodied by Plummer’s turn as Getty Senior, stepping in to replace the now disgraced Kevin Spacey. We will likely never see what Spacey’s Getty is like, but Plummer’s is a fascinating creature: a man so caught up in the rituals of acquisition, the tidal pull of macro-economics, the wheeling and dealing of international finance, that his ability for human connection is utterly stunted. Oh, he tries to wear a convincing mask – a flashback scene has Getty, doing his own laundry in an opulent hotel room to save a few pennies, gift the young JPIII with an expensive antique statuette of the Minotaur – but when the chips are down, he will not put any chips of his own on the table. In a later key scene, Wahlberg’s bagman, his own cynicism temporarily short-circuited by Getty’s incredible avarice, asks the old plutocrat exactly how much money it would take to make him feel secure. “More,” the reptilian Getty replies.
It’s also worth noting that the Minotaur, only one of a number of recurring motifs from Classical mythology and history, fed on sacrificed youths and maidens. Make of that what you will.
Getty’s opposite number is Harris, whom Michelle Williams imbues with a kind of steely, pragmatic compassion. Caught in the glare of publicity around the case – much of the film takes place in Italy, birthplace of the paparazzi, and director Ridley Scott does not shy away from showing predatory packs of snap-happy photographers at every public event – Harris’ chief task is learning how to navigate this weird world of wealth and privilege, finding her own power and making incredible sacrifices along the way in order to rescue her son. Of course, the abyss also gazes, and it’s fascinating to see Williams’ character gradually harden as she earns her place at Getty’s table.
Only one character other than Harris treats young Paul as anything other than a commodity: Cinquanta, one of the kidnappers, played by veteran French actor Romain Duris (the Spanish Apartment trilogy), whose fundamental empathy puts him at odds with his cohorts, especially once Paul is sold to a more ruthless criminal organisation once his original captors realise that the whole thing is just too much like hard work. The old Stockholm syndrome bit is pretty familiar territory by this stage of the game, but Duris’ ruggedly humane turn carries it, and by extension lends some much needed colour to Charlie Plummer’s Paul, who is otherwise left with one note to play (that he admittedly plays well).
This being a Ridley Scott joint, the whole thing looks beautiful, and Scott’s keen eye for set design and background detail remains undimmed (Scott, lest we forget, is 80 years old). The recreation of ’70s Europe is on point, if occasionally given to overstatement rather than strict accuracy, and the sumptuous appointments of Getty’s world, filled with antiques and fine artworks, marble bust upon marble bust and leatherbound books by the yard, are all captured beautifully by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Crow, Pirates of the Caribbean), whose command of shadow and colour is a perfect match for Scott’s layered, detail oriented visual aesthetic.
Where the film falls down is as an actual drama – the events as depicted serve better as a framework through which we can explore these themes and this world. Scarpa and Scott conflate and alter events to suit their dramatic purposes, but the extended timeline of the case is such that tension is difficult to maintain, despite the suspense inherent in the premise. While All the Money in the World is far from inert, at times it feels rather sedate, but Scott’s precise worldbuilding and our fascination with the exotic and alien world of the super-rich carry us through.