What everybody wants to know about “All the Money in the World” is if Christopher Plummer, plugged into the “villain” role when disgraced star Kevin Spacey was edited out, pulls it off.
Of course he does, with venomous, flinty flair.
Movies and performances in them are modular affairs, and even a big part like that of miserly millionaire J. Paul Getty can be replaced, a new actor slotted in for close-ups, a few recreated location shots and the occasional multi-player scene.
Heck, check out Plummer in “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” This was a no-brainer.
The great, Oscar-winning Plummer, who takes on hints of Ebeneezer in every villainous turn, makes Getty the greatest real-life Scrooge of them all. His Getty is an owlish, avaricious, cunning and cheap SOB not inclined to part with “MY money” — even for a kidnapped grandson and heir.
Ridley Scott’s thriller is about an infamous kidnapping in the even-more anarchic and corrupt of Italy of the 1970s. John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) is a beautiful teen getting into all the trouble a lad with impulses and the means to indulge them could get into in 1973 Rome.
“Got home, don’t worry your mother,” a hooker lectures him.
“I can take care of myself,” he sniffs. Yeah, that’s the very moment when he’s kidnapped. The Red Brigades, a terrorist organization, want $17 million for his return.
The trouble with that, we quickly learn and they (Romain Duris is their leader) never do, is that “Paolo” isn’t a teen “of means.”
“There IS no money,” his mother (Michelle Williams, brilliant) shrieks into the phone. Even though she might have BEEN a “Getty,” that’s long-past. Her ex is off, stoned out of his gourd, partying in Morocco with whores and Mick Jagger.
And Grandpa? He’s “the richest man in the history of the world,” ensconced in a vast English manor house, living like the Lord of Oil he is.
“Everything has a price,” in his eyes. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what that price is.”
How much WILL the man with “All the Money in the World” pay for that grandson?
Scott, working from a David Scarpa script (based on John Pearson’s book about the Gettys and the kidnapping), paints a quick history of the family’s staggering wealth in broad strokes — ancient deals with the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia — and of Abigail Harris’s history with those same Gettys.
Gail (Williams) married an alcoholic heir (Andrew Buchan) estranged from a father who never made time for his family. Money was and remains J. Paul’s obsession. His few flashback dealings with his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren are little life lessons in obscene wealth and what comes with it.
“To be a Getty is an extraordinary thing.”
He’s most intent, not on making more money (though he’s pretty intent on that, using the new OPEC cartel to make his holdings more valuable). The trick, he says, is “staying wealthy.”
“If you can count your money, you’re not a billionaire.”
A lot of Getty’s philosophy is imparted to the audience via his chats with our surrogate in all this, Fletcher Chase, Getty’s ex-CIA “fixer,” a negotiator Getty hurls at every difficult deal or security matter in his empire. Mark Wahlberg gives this guy a compact confidence and easily-accessed cynicism as Chase takes the place of the ransom money, a “gift” from Getty to Gail who will retrieve her son for her.
Chase deals with the overmatched Italian police and the increasingly impatient kidnappers, who spirit young Paul to a semi-abandoned farm in remote Calabria, where the corruption runs deep and no local — cook or cop — can be trusted to do the right thing.
Months and months pass as the increasingly steely mother matches wits and will with a rich old man too cheap to pay for laundry service at the four-star hotels he sometimes visits, much less any ransom that would cut into his art collecting budget.
That time passage works against the picture’s “ticking clock” tension. We dread Paul’s fate, even if we don’t remember the history of how this all unfolded. It’s just that his fate comes at us in slow motion.
What Scott’s film does well is capture the near-anarchy of Italy in the ’70s, with violent paparazzi, terrorists and criminals run amok and a justice system straight out of a Third World country (It was a kidnapping capital long before Colombia and Brazil got into that game).
Williams amazingly transforms Gail from the faintly-patrician young woman who married into this empire into an impoverished but defiant negotiator whose accent has grown more posh and her spine stiffer, all from combat and interaction with the richest man on Earth.
Wahlberg, toned-down, underplaying it, still has one lay-it-all-out-there/tell-the-boss-off scene that feels far more Hollywood than realistic. It mars a near pitch-perfect performance.
But Scott and Plummer conspire to give us the ultimate portrait of greed, pettiness and the deep psychological holes in the souls of those obsessed with acquiring wealth and maintaining it.
I love the way Plummer gives us this side of the old man, his grandiloquent sense of self even when he’s being sentimental (in flashbacks) with the grandson he now refuses to ransom.
“You’re a Getty, Paul. You have a destiny.”
One got a sense, from the early trailers, that Kevin Spacey’s take on Getty was sinister and somewhat the product of makeup. Plummer? He manages his avarice and villainy with nothing but a great performance.
It’s that disconnection from “The Real World,” that sense that “We look like you, but we’re not like you” that makes “All the Money in the World” feel so timely. As the super-rich seize, at long last, absolute power in America, they reveal just what this movie lays out for us — untrammeled greed, and a heartless calculus that allows the top tier of the One Percent to loot without conscience, to accept that the deaths of others are just a price they’re willing to shrug off to achieve that singular desire — “more.”
There have always been Gettys, and the world has always tried to rein them in. But it’s rare in our history that we’ve actually decided to surrender what little control we have over them so absolutely. Expecting anyone with “All the Money in the World” to maintain a conscience is the height of folly.
MPAA Rating:R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content
Cast: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Christopher Plummer
Running time: 2:12