It is all but impossible to watch All the Money in the World, director Ridley Scott’s dramatization of the kidnapping of Getty Oil heir J. Paul Getty III, and not be reminded of the major surgery Scott performed on the picture less than a month before its scheduled Christmas opening. Faced with the hideous charges of sexual harassment and predatory behavior leveled against star Kevin Spacey — who was heavily aged through makeup in the film to play eccentric yet almost unbelievably cheap billionaire J. Paul Getty, the kidnap victim’s grandfather — Scott knew that the cloud of toxicity surrounding Spacey would envelop and perhaps suffocate his film as well.
Acting quickly, he arranged for the great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer (reportedly his original choice anyway) to replace Spacey and moved forward with reshooting every single scene involving the elder Getty, a seemingly Herculean task involving going back to locations, revisiting sets and rounding up crew and other cast members. Within perhaps the last three weeks, the 80-year-old Scott reshot a substantial portion of footage and re-edited it into the movie (his second of the year, by the way, after Alien: Covenant) in time for the press and public to see it more or less when they were supposed to.
Scott did not hesitate, for many reasons, to do the right thing, while the film itself is about a man who refuses to do the right thing for his own selfish and even venal concerns. It’s an interesting parallel, but it’s a shame that the movie starts out strong before dragging its story out in a way that deflates a lot of its initial momentum. As the film opens, we meet the younger Getty at 16 (played by Charlie Plummer, no relation, pretty but somewhat blank) as he wanders the streets of Rome at night by himself, taking in the sights and conversing casually with prostitutes. It’s 1973 and we learn via voiceover and flashback that Paul’s (as he is called) father, John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), is a drug addict wasting away in Morocco and already divorced by his wife Abigail (Michelle Williams), whose custody of their four children has already grated on their grandfather.
Then Paul is kidnapped, taken right off the street and flung into a van by a gang of low-level hoods and would-be revolutionaries who end up selling their victim to a larger (and more anonymous) Mafia operation, with one of them (Romain Duris) becoming a semi-sympathetic protector to Paul. The ransom is set at $17 million and Abigail heads to London to see about getting it from her former father-in-law. But she’s barely set foot in Blighty when the old man tells the press in no uncertain terms that he won’t pay it, ostensibly because that would set a bad precedent for anyone thinking of absconding with one or more of his 13 other grandchildren.
The truth of the matter is that Getty is the skinflint to end all skinflints, and Plummer captures the man’s monstrous inability to see past the end of his balance sheet with a mix of cold calculation and reptilian stillness. Content to wash his own clothes in a hotel room rather than tip the maid service for doing it, he’s also perfectly happy to let his grandson rot somewhere in Italy (and lose a body part in one viciously nasty sequence) while instead sending his ex-CIA fixer Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg, who’s good but we suspect is playing a role that’s been beefed up considerably for its part in the narrative) to track down his heir’s whereabouts — as long as Chace stays within a reasonable budget.
Much of the movie is about the war of nerves between Getty and his former daughter-in-law. Michelle Williams brings a snappy, no-nonsense demeanor and well-educated accent to the role of a woman for whom all the wealth and power one can muster means nothing without respect and love. She is strong and courageous, pushed to the edge by the men who refuse to listen or acquiesce to her even when she is clearly in the right — even the more sympathetic Chace at first lords his supposed expertise over her. Yet it’s Getty who knocks her down so many times both directly and indirectly (Williams is heartbreaking in one scene near the end in which she finds out that Getty is just as much a fraud as he is a miser), but each time she gets up and finds a way to outwit and outrage him again.
The clash between Gail and Getty is the best aspect of All the Money in the World, and fortunately Williams and Plummer are more than up to the challenge; it’s difficult to imagine Spacey embodying the role of Getty as well as Plummer does. So much more of the film’s two hour-plus running time — taken up by repetitive check-ins with little Paul’s jailers and Chace’s investigation — is well done and polished to a fine (if somberly lit) gloss by Scott, yet ends up contributing little to the narrative. As the movie grinds through its increasingly labored and unrealistic second half (which features some highly fictionalized remixes of actual events by screenwriter David Scarpa), whatever message it seems to be striving for gets lost.
All the Money in the World is not Scott at his superficial worst, but it’s also far from him at his epic and most meaningful best. It’s stylish, impeccably designed and performed with precision. A lot of money in a very small amount of time went into saving the film from complete commercial failure and disrepute, an incredible achievement on its own terms. But all the money in the world — to borrow a phrase — can’t save it from generating little in the way of real passion.
All the Money in the World is out in theaters on Christmas Day (December 25).