All the reshoots in the world won’t change the most fascinating aspect of All the Money in the World: that just six weeks before its release, the sizeable role of the oil tycoon John Paul Getty was played by Kevin Spacey, whose work was then expunged from the film in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against him. Now Getty is portrayed by Christopher Plummer – who, at 88 to Spacey’s 58, didn’t need to spend so long in the make-up trailer each morning to transform himself into the desiccated billionaire. (Spacey looked unrecognisable beneath the prosthetics, and might have put a camp spin on Getty’s bitterness, whereas Plummer goes for dryly amusing disdain.) The reshoots may have cost around $10m but they’ve also brought some interest to a film that is, in most other respects, without note. Save for a pair of performances of absorbing resolve from Plummer and Michelle Williams, it will take its place in history as a pub-quiz question, a footnote to a scandal.
It begins in Rome in 1973 with the snatching of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation). Moments earlier he was jokingly bartering with a prostitute, insisting he should get a young person’s discount, which at least marks him out as a true Getty. In the course of the attempts to extract $17m, the Calabrian kidnappers find themselves stonewalled and later haggled with pedantically by the boy’s grandfather, who scrutinises every bill to see if it is tax-deductible.
Fortunately for the boy, he has a resilient mother, Gail (Williams), who has already outfoxed her former father-in-law once when she refused to fight him for a payout after divorcing his dissolute son. “I don’t want your money,” she tells him in a flashback, as proud as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Getty is baffled: “Everyone wants my money,” he protests. The old man is her first port of call for the ransom but he won’t budge. Asked by the press how much he will pay for the boy’s life, he says: “Nothing.” Gail falls into an alliance with his head of security, the ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), who boasts of having the old man’s ear. As the money goes unpaid and the kidnappers get desperate, he will soon have the young man’s ear as well.
Scenes between Fletcher and Gail benefit from not being over-egged, though their relationship appears to be missing some connective tissue. One moment she is bashing him in the face with a telephone receiver, the next he is babysitting her children. The screenplay, by David Scarpa, never really finds its centre of gravity. It expresses some sympathy for Cinquanta, a kidnapper who has a crisis of conscience, but audiences are likely to feel sorrier for Romain Duris, who plays him, and suffers a crisis of accent.
The picture is shot and lit with plush banality, Gail’s world seen in warm, mellow hues, Getty’s consumed by a funereal gloom. Standard symbolism abounds. Meat is chopped in close-up, characters move like pawns on chessboard floors and Getty coos over a painting (“my beautiful child”) while his grandson languishes in a cave somewhere. Mist swirls through several scenes without any apparent source and no one says “Man alive, is something burning?” because it’s a Ridley Scott film.
Only Williams, in her stand-offs with Plummer, generates anything close to surprise or spontaneity. She appears to have set herself a challenge to get through the whole film without crying. This results in some halting, high-wire line readings, where she keeps herself teetering on the brink of tears, and a calculated froideur that she hasn’t exhibited on screen before. In her tremendous final shot, she initiates a staring contest with a bust of Getty that looks somehow more human than the real thing.
The story of what happened to Paul next is widely known – the kidnapping came to define him, precipitating drug addiction, a stroke and an early death – and arguably more intriguing than anything in the movie. But Scott has no time for ingredients that don’t fit into a standard-issue hostage drama. Whatever niggling questions arise (why open with Paul’s narration and then never call on his voiceover again?), he just keeps that smoke machine pumping.
All the Money in the World (15)
director: Ridley Scott
This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old