Ridley Scott faced a crisis of Weinstein proportions when, six weeks shy of release, his completed kidnap thriller All the Money in the World was found to be harbouring one Kevin Spacey, whom the world now alleged was a prolific sex attacker with a taste for young shank (and not in a poignant way like American Beauty). The problem was exacerbated by the role in question being that of J.P. Getty, the oil tycoon, whom the story alleges, exploited the physical and psychological abuse of his grandson for personal gratification. Scott, sensing a box office bomb coming down the pipe, wrapped in some of the worst reviews of his career, now famously decided to replace Spacey with Christopher Plummer in a lightning 9-day, $12m whirligig of reshoots. The film was saved! Or was it?
If you can see, indeed feel, the join, it’s certainly not Plummer’s fault. His wizened presence grounds All the Money in the World while the rest of the cast occupies a curiously heightened reality that pays lip service to naturalism without fully embracing it. When the story’s focused on Getty Senior’s vulgarian tendencies; an insecure hardheart who’s sandbagged himself with cash and commodities, it piques interest. Plummer cuts a an enigmatic figure, motivated by a cold father, “you’ll never amount to anything”, who built a monster fortune without sentiment or favour; a man who came to see all relationships as transactional.
It’s this, the film suggests, that informs Getty’s decision not to pay the $17m demanded, sans a proper valuation, for his kidnapped grandson. It’s a bad deal and, with 16 other legacies – sorry, grandkids, could hurt his interests elsewhere. The kidnappers have made the mistake of ascribing to Getty the humanity and warmth they imagine to be intrinsic to most American families – they’ve built their understanding of the American mind from watching their sitcoms. They’re unaware that Getty, the richest human who’s ever lived at that point, has acquired his grandson like one of his oil wells, buying back this lost branch of the family (and subsequently destroying it, in one of the film’s early asides) with a job for a hitherto ignored son. In other words, though he professes to love the boy, and relative to his values we’ve no reason to disbelieve him, he’s also prepared to risk his safety and long term health for a reduced price, and is only too ready to believe it could be a hoax and attempt at in-house extortion, when right hand man and enforcer, Mark Wahlberg, suggests as much.
Though Plummer had just a few days to prepare for his turn, the old pro nevertheless manages to hint at the psychological damage underpinning the character’s controlled indifference to more humane considerations. Elsewhere, in the portions completed when Spacey wasn’t yet a dirty word, the film struggles to find a focus that teases out its best themes. As a kidnap drama it lacks tension, the threat to Paulo devoid of the sustained menace that would recreate the ordeal from his point of view. In fact, All the Money… is content to treat the victim as the kidnappers do – a commodity, a thing – the story’s maguffin – snatched at the beginning, returned at the close; a treatment that fails to allude to the lifelong trauma that subsequently ruined Paulo’s life. There’s not even a follow-up caption at the close.
And why should there be? This a movie that reflects the values and interests of Getty Senior – a man obsessed with money and empire building, who though seen clutching a picture of mother and child in his dying moments here (a redemptive, mawkish and wholly invented coda for the character), in reality refused to come to the phone when his mutilated grandson phoned to thank him for belatedly paying up. It is, without apology, a film interested in the relative values of the super-rich. Getty, whose presence is so intimidating it causes Wahlberg to notably lose two stone every time he sees him, tells us that being rich is not the same as getting rich – in other words, his level of success is contingent on a sociopathic state of mind.
Scott’s movie works best as a character study, then. Michelle Williams, as the boy’s mother and Getty’s real nemesis – the woman with custody of his grandchildren; the part of his legacy he doesn’t control; comes closest to providing a dramatic sparring partner and emotional counterpoint to Plummer’s steely self-interest. It’s unfortunately then, that the key moment, Getty being challenged on his values, is given to Walhberg, who having passively drifted through the narrative, hasn’t earned it.
Ultimately it’s Plummer’s show. Some hurried CG work aside, he’s the film’s most credible presence and its only point of nuanced human interest. The rest, in Scott’s efficient but cold hands, is lavishly shot background. Money can buy you everything it seems, but storytelling craft…and the time required for Mark Wahlberg to gain weight or reshoot the entirety of his role.