The kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III in 1973 was an international tabloid sensation. The grandson of the world’s richest man was abducted for ransom and the miserly oil tycoon held steadfast in his refusal to pay for his grandson’s release. Today, the tabloids are overflowing with stories of sexual misconduct by power players in Hollywood, powerful men toppling like bowling pins as decades of bad behavior comes to light. One of the more prominent figures to fall was Kevin Spacey, and in an unprecedented move, director Ridley Scott excised the disgrace actor from his drama All the Money in the World, about the Getty kidnapping, and replaced him with Christopher Plummer – this, mind you, all occurring a month before the film’s scheduled release date. Amazingly, Ridley Scott pulled off this nigh-impossible feat and All the Money in the World is hitting its planned release date. The film is a sleek historical drama with a strong undercurrent about the perils of endless wealth and fame.
All the Money in the World opens in Italy in 1973. Scott’s film starts in black and white as J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) strolling along the Italian streets in what appears to an homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The young Getty stops and chats with local prostitutes before a van pulls up and seizes the young heir.
With the inciting event kicking off All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa (adapting John Pearson’s book) are able to trace the path that led the Getty family to these terrifying events. J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) made a fortune in oil, striking deals with the Saudi royal family and devising previously unrealized of ways to transport the oil from the Middle East to all over the world. By the ‘60s, J. Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) has had little contact with his wealthy father, raising a family in San Francisco with his wife Gail (Michelle Williams). At his wife’s behest, the Getty son sends his father a letter. The elder Getty responds with a telegram asking for the family to meet him in Rome. In Rome, J. Paul Getty II is offered a job and the patriarch of the wealthy family grows a bond with J. Paul III, supplying the young man with a valuable trinket and other forms of self-mythologizing about his family lineage. As the years progress, J. Paul II finds himself deep into addiction and Gail files for divorce, leading to a contentious split where the cheapskate billionaire father intervenes, treating the family split as a business transaction. All of this backstory serves to set up the icy coldness that J. Paul Getty uses as a tool in business that deprived him of meaningful human connection to those he claimed to love, and further illustrate how he can be indifferent to the harm committed to his grandson.
With the young Getty in captivity on the Italian countryside with Cinquanta (Romain Duris) overseeing his food and handling ransom negotiations, the elder Getty brings in Fletcher Chase (Mark Whalberg) to utilize his skills acquired from his time in the CIA and his new career cutting deals for Getty’s company to devise a way to bring back the capture J. Paul III. Eventually, Cinquanta and his cohorts grow tired of J. Paul Getty’s intransigence and sell the grandson to a criminal cartel who are much more ruthless. As the situation gets more and more dire for the younger Getty, Gail and Fletcher must evade the relentless paparazzi, deal with a corrupt and inept police force, and pray that J. Paul Getty may find some form of conscience that may inspire him to part with just a fraction of his massive wealth.
With one minor exception, the way in which Ridley Scott was able seamlessly to replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer is nothing short of amazing. This doesn’t feel like a movie that recast and reshot a major role a month ago, and Plummer’s role is quite large and integral to the film. Christopher Plummer does deliver a strong performance as the cold and immensely wealthy Getty (though I don’t know if it’s exactly worthy of its Golden Globe nomination). The script by David Scarpa and Plummer’s performance bring forth a portrait of man consumed by greed, placing more value in possessions and wealth than in love and family. All he ever loved was money so he believed that people only loved him for his money. Ridley Scott uses this defining character trait for some rather clever scenes of misdirection, ones that really bring forth some of the most cringe-inducing aspects of Getty’s callousness. Scott’s examination of Getty’s greed and indifference take the story into some fascinating places, such as the mogul using the kidnapping as a means to get a modest tax break.
All the Money in the World is superbly acted all around. Most of the chatter of the movie will be focused on Christopher Plummer and the unusual circumstances that brought him to the screen, but it’s really Michelle Williams who anchors the story. Gail is a strong, smart woman forced into unthinkable circumstances in more ways than one. Williams brings a combination of strength and weariness to Gail that is easy to empathize with, and Gail also is given moments in the film that highlights a keen ability to creatively think on the fly amidst unthinkable levels of personal stress and grief. As the young kidnapped heir, Charlie Plummer brings a vulnerability that was present in his indie breakout King Jack. Plummer creates a fascinating onscreen bond with Romain Duris’ Cinquanta that is more complicated than the simple explanation of Stockholm syndrome. For an international film that is taking place across multiple countries and multiple moments in time, Ridley Scott does an excellent job of keeping the film rather localized in its character dynamics, which are often focused on two interchanging characters with clear objectives.
Ridley Scott continues to work at an incredible rate – All the Money in the World is his second film this year following Alien: Covenant – and the legendary filmmaker is keenly able to make a sharp thriller based on true events that is localized in the characters for its drama but draws upon broader societal trends for its themes. Here is a story of celebrity and greed, something that is all too familiar these days; a story of self-inflating myth at the cost of personal relationships; a story of sacrificing someone else’s wellbeing for just a little more money. These aspects to the Getty story are present in various facets of modern society, seemingly more and more with each passing day. Then, in case you missed it, Ridley Scott concludes All the Money in the World with a powerful, haunting final shot that brings this tragedy to a close. It’s amazing that Ridley Scott pulled off this incredible retooling of his film in less than a month before its release, but it’s more amazing that the film is so insightful and thrilling as it speaks to the past and present.