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Film review: All the Money in the World

“What would it take for you to feel secure?” Mark Wahlberg asks this in the official trailer for All the Money in the World, a new film that explores one of the most famous crimes in modern history: the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, the grandson of the man who was at the time the richest man in history. The question wound up getting applied to the filmmakers themselves, thanks to other alleged crimes having nothing to do with oil or ransoms. This used to be the trailer for the film:

The latter trailer debuted just as high-profile allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and child molestation emerged against Kevin Spacey, originally cast as oilman J. Paul Getty in the film. After seeing the first trailer in the theater before It just after the first allegations hit the headlines, I told a friend, “Looks like a good film. Too bad only three people will pay to watch it.” Director Ridley Scott and Sony Pictures saw the same problem and took the unprecedented step of cutting Spacey out of the film just a few weeks before the release date, bringing in Christopher Plummer to reshoot the role.

That’s what it took for Scott and Sony to feel secure — and for the most part, they succeeded. All the Money in the World is a taut thriller in which the elder Getty’s strangeness contrasts against the gritty determination of his former daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams), the vulnerability of the victim (Charlie Plummer, no apparent relation), and the hard-nosed expertise of his fixer, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). The producers offer a noirish, blue-washed 1970s-style film in which the lines between the good guys and bad guys get somewhat blurred at times while offering a too-neat denouement to a tragedy that ended up unfolding over decades.

At some level, Christopher Plummer steals the show simply by his presence. Having almost no preparation for his rescue operation of a film with an estimated budget of $50 million, Plummer is an object of curiosity as well as a skilled actor in a critical role. Will it work? one wonders going into the film, and that natural curiosity can distract a bit from the film itself. It doesn’t take long for Plummer to put that question to rest, which then allows him to steal the rest of the film in a more traditional manner, given the need for Getty to be both human and inhuman as the fulcrum of the plot. (Spacey does appear in one wide shot, but you’ll have to look closely to spot him.)

The film has several outstanding performances which make it worth the price of admission. Williams gives a terrific portrayal of Gail Harris’ struggle to save her son while fighting the Getty “empire,” and the younger Plummer is very convincing as a young naïf thrust into a situation that is both bewildering and unprecedented. Romain Duris delivers a surprisingly powerful turn as “Cinquanta,” the kidnapper who forms an emotional attachment to the young Getty and plays an important role in his survival. Walberg, on the other hand, doesn’t do much as Chase, in large part because the material doesn’t allow for it. The role as written depicts an uber-competent fixer with an odd moral clarity, given his choice of employer, and mainly exists in the film as a stock character. The real Chase was much more interesting and not at all as competent, as Vanity Fair notes in its comparison between the film and history:

Mark Wahlberg’s character in All the Money in the World is based on a real-life former C.I.A. spy whom Getty sent to Rome, five weeks after the kidnapping, to help Gail. The real Chase was an even more maddening figure. Pearson alleges that Chase—who was the only person Getty would speak to—began sleeping with a woman on the payroll of the paramilitary Carabinieri who fed his suspicion that the kidnapping was a hoax. While telling Getty not to pay the ransom, Chase slowly and singlehandedly followed dead-end leads—one of which took him to a remote town, where he was bilked out of $3,000. At one point, Chase nonsensically relocated Paul’s family to a safe house in London.

That might have made for a more interesting character, but would likely have needed an even longer runtime for it to make sense. Instead, the film arrives at a jarring sunny ending that might seem satisfying for a fiction-genre thriller but hardly fits in with the Getty weirdness that precedes it. The ending ties everything in such a neat bow that it immediately raises suspicions, and the unfortunate truth is all too easy to research. (See “Mild Spoilers” section at the end if you’re interested.)

Even with its flaws, All the Money in the World is still worth paying money to see in the theater. Plummer’s expert portrayal will get much of the focus, but Williams’ performance is what drives this film, and the tension of the kidnapping and the gamesmanship around it is legitimate and worthwhile, if sometimes a bit uneven. On the Hot Air scale, All the Money in the World gets a 4:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

All the Money in the World is rated R, a rating it deserves mostly for the scene in which the kidnappers cut off part of Paul’s ear, shown in realistic and gory fashion. There is other violence depicted in slightly less graphic fashion and some harsh language. It’s not a film for children or for teenagers.

 

Mild spoilers alert:

Finally, the end of the film suggests that Gail Harris wound up in control of the Getty empire after Paul’s rescue and Getty’s immediate death. It gives a sense of justice that, unfortunately, is not at all true. Control of the trusts passed to Getty’s four sons but the fortune mainly went to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Not only did Gail get nothing, neither did her son, and her ex-husband wound up with a grand total of $500 from the elder Getty’s direct bequests. Paul had serious emotional problems after the kidnapping, becoming an addict and suffering a stroke in 1981 that left him a quadriplegic for the next 30 years until his death. Gail cared for him and had to sue his father to get his medical costs covered.

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