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.
In 19th century New York, would-be impresario PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dreamer from impoverished roots, is trying to find the magic ingredient that will draw crowds to his struggling museum. He hits upon the notion of exhibiting human “oddities” – people with unusual features or unusual skills. Enlisting playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his partner, Barnum assembles a troupe of marvels, including acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and little person Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). The crowds and the money start pouring in, but the respectability that Barnum needs to impress the upper crust parents of his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) still eludes him.
The Greatest Showman‘s only goal is to entertain the hell out of you, and it pursues it with single-minded determination and all the razzle-dazzle it can muster. The film uses the career of the real life PT Barnum as a loose framework (this is very much a “print the legend” situation) but make no mistake, this is not so much about Barnum as it is about Jackman. The Greatest Showman is a showcase for the all-singing, all dancing Boy From Oz, and seems to be a kind of mission statement: a reminder that, while the world might know Hugh as a certain clawed mutant marauder, his heart belongs to the theatre.
Indeed, both film and star are so determined to make us smile, and the proceedings are so packed with light, colour, and spectacle, that it’s just about enough to make you not notice the shaky foundations the whole shebang is built upon. Dramatically speaking, there’s not a whole lot going on; while a happy ending is rarely in doubt when it comes to this sort of thing (Moulin Rouge, clearly a stylistic influence on first time director Michael Gracey, being an obvious exception), even the illusion of risk is absent here. Character relationships are poorly defined, be they between Barnum and his family, who he gently neglects but keeps in well-heeled comfort, or Barnum and his would-be protege, Carlyle, whose mentor/student dynamic never really clicks.
The exception is the budding romance between Carlyle and Anne, which flies in the face of the racist social conventions of the time, but the success of that subplot is mainly down to Zendaya – in a work packed with bombast and noise, her talent and charm shine through cleanly, and she is the ensemble’s clear standout, the magnificently-voiced Keala settles being a close second.
Thematically, The Greatest Showman takes a stab at individuality and freedom of expression, the old “follow your dreams” bit, but fails to push in any interesting directions. The obvious point that, while many of the people working for him have limited options when it comes to employment and lifestyle, the white, male, able-bodied and comparatively wealthy Barnum chooses the showbiz world, is never made, and the chorus of oddities are basically background artists in service to Barnum’s aggrandisement. To be fair, Barnum’s story is Barnum’s story, but there’s a more deft and more interesting way to tell it, and given that the film has sifted through the facts of the real Barnum’s life, picking and discarding to fit its chosen form, there’s plenty of material from which to craft a more balanced and aware story.
But there’s music and dancing and explosions of colour, a menagerie of (mostly) CGI animals, a fantastical roster of astonishing people and things (sadly, no Feejee Mermaid), and plenty of rousing, feel good songs – “This is Me” isn’t going away any time soon. Still, for all that it entertains in the moment, The Greatest Showman feels like a missed opportunity.