It’s the most wonderful time of the year — the holiday season — when love abounds on earth and joyous family gatherings occur. How fittingly ironic that director Ridley Scott chose Christmas Day to debut All the Money in the World. It’s the mind-blowing 1973 tale of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s (Christopher Plummer) miserly reluctance to pay the Italian mob captors of his grandson, J. Paul Getty, III (Charlie Plummer). The film is an adaptation of John Pearson’s Getty Sr. biography, Painfully Rich, and had the book been written about Getty III, it could have been entitled Painfully Unloved. Not until the captors deliver the grandson’s severed ear does the supposed richest man in the world consider cracking open his wallet. Meanwhile, the mental anguish tortures Getty’s ex-daughter-in-law, Gail Harris (Michelle Wililams), as she is desperately determined to secure Getty III’s release. The provocative contrast of monetary wealth and artistic beauty versus Getty’s poverty of human compassion and love sufficiently stimulates Scott’s audience to watch a tale of a scrooge during the Christmas season without the benefit of a happily-ever-after ending.
As I learned from Pearson’s book, the Getty family fortune originated in the oil fields of Oklahoma, where Getty Sr.’s father elevated the family status from middle class to millionaires. Not to be outdone, the younger Getty transformed the merely prosperous operations into a global juggernaut via a series a shrewd, often ruthless, acquisitions and buyouts. The culmination of these transactions was his deal with nomadic Bedouins (the Saudis) for drilling rights in what is called the Saudi-Kuwaiti neutral zone. Subsequently, Getty Sr. became a billionaire, and totally self-absorbed. He was married five times and had children with four of his wives. Abnormal, distant relationships were the norm between Getty and his family members.
In All the Money in the World, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa only provide glimpses of Getty’s historical family evolution and dysfunction via Getty III’s flashbacks in captivity. While this form of storytelling is expedient, insufficient details impair the audience’s ability to fully engage with the characters and have an emotional investment. From a technical viewpoint, the flashback sequences seem clumsy and mishandled, occurring sporadically in the first act, stifling the organic development of characters and leaving viewers with a case of mental whiplash. This is unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), in which a specific object, person or phrase with thematic importance (and requiring exposition) triggers a flashback. Fortunately, by the second act of All the Money in the World, the characters interact naturally, providing the necessary depth and pathos to their roles.
In terms of casting, the ensemble is definitely a highlight of the film, elevating it above a simple procedural police tale. However, the elephant in the room is the recasting of the Getty Sr.’s role from Kevin Spacey to Plummer. When this change was announced in early November, I was skeptical of such a radical decision, and was fully prepared for the worst. With 22 scenes to reshoot and only nine days, how could they pull this off without affecting the integrity of the film? It is a pleasure to say that Scott and company accomplished the switch expertly. Plummer and his director prove that 80 is the new 60, and they deserve acknowledgement and respect for rescuing the collective efforts of the hundreds of individuals who worked on the film. Plummer gives a stellar performance, one which will likely yield several nominations this awards season. Scott has the reputation of being a “two take” director, able to elicit raw emotion from his actors. Accordingly, Plummer draws upon his improvisation experience in live theater. Working under the gun, he and Scott create a convincing portrayal of the complicated, soulless Getty Sr.; a man so focused and self-absorbed on providing infinite resources for a dynasty that he could not spare a moment of his time to emotionally nurture any of his spouses or children. Plummer deftly exhibits more emotional attachment to a prized painting of the Madonna and Child than his own flesh and blood, which is another ironic tie-in to the Christmas release date. The only flaw in Plummer’s performance is the expositional narration, as it’s less engaging than Getty III’s delivery.
In sharp contrast to Getty, Michelle Williams (as Gail Harris) delivers a convincing portrayal of a passionate woman who is in over her head, but driven by unstoppable maternal instincts that will not allow her to give up her son. I wish her characterization, however, had not been so abridged by the flashbacks. In comparison to Pearson’s revelation of Gail in his book, Scott and Scarpa choose to strongly push a martyr image of Gail, which may be rather exaggerated. Doing so is thematically advantageous to Scott and Scarpa, juxtaposing Gail’s loving and courageous matriarchal tendencies with Getty Sr.’s patriarchal coldness. Gail is willing to give up everything for one individual, whereas Getty Sr. sees the individual as subordinate to the needs of the dynasty. The board room scenes capture their psychological battle of wits, and each word spoken carries a sharp but subtle sting while upping the ante in their already complicated family feud.
A disappointing aspect of the cast is Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of Fletcher Chase, the ex special agent brought in to negotiate with the captors to secure Paul’s release. Wahlberg is not nearly as impactful as Williams or Plummer, and the primary flaw is the way his character shifts allegiances and subsequently becomes a PSA of moral authority and not an ex-CIA agent. I don’t know if Wahlberg overplayed this shift or if Scott evoked it from him. To be fair, having to work with two completely different actors as Getty Sr. may have played a part in the inconsistent performance. Wahlberg’s interaction with Getty towards the end of the film is over the top, akin to his portrayal of Brock Landers in Boogie Nights.
Most deserving of celebration is the exquisite cinematography of Dariusz Wolski. The introductory scenes of young Paul Getty, as he travels down Via Veneto, are visually rich and popping with texture, a beautiful homage to Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960). Wolski uses harsh lighting and shadows to give the city streets of Rome a sinister element foreshadowing of the criminal act that will transpire. Through Wolski’s artistic lens, Getty Sr.’s fortress/mansion, Sutton Place, comes across like something out of an old-fashioned fairytale. Dim lighting gives off an almost macabre feeling, which captures the essence of cold, distant person inhabiting the mansion. Wolski’s finest moment, however, is the scene of Getty and his grandson as they stroll through Hadrian’s castle in Rome, as it marks a rare moment of quality time between the two characters. Wolski captures the ruins in a way that is both tactile and gritty, snowy and dreamlike, and one could argue that this mise-en-scène expertly depicts Getty as a person. One moment he is charming and calm, only to turn vicious and cold. The Getty dynasty, like the settings of the film, appears to be on the verge of ruin. Scott and Wolski employ a parallel cutting between Paul’s kidnappers, Getty Sr. and his business associates that leaves the audience to question who the true criminals are. This trick helps to even out the pacing and adds an extra layer of subtext for the audience to ponder.
Even with some strong acting and excellent cinematography, All the Money in the World falters in the latter portion. It’s ultimately Scarpa’s bizarre scripting decisions that make the film just a fun crime thriller, and not a Ridley Scott classic. The movie’s conclusion goes so far off from what actually happened that it might as well have been a different family drama. I contend that this message of patriarchy run amuck — which corrupts and curses all who come in contact with it — would have been better served by staying truthful to the actual events.
Overall, All the Money in the World is a finely made crime caper that suggests Ridley Scott and Christopher Plummer remain in their prime. But, those looking for a truly amazing film that covers all the ins and outs of the Getty family and what ultimately cursed them will have to keep on waiting. It is important to note that Danny Boyle is producing a TV series on the Getty family called Trust, which is set to premiere in 2018 on the FX network and will star Donald Sutherland as Getty Sr. Perhaps the television version will succeed where the film fell short.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.