All the Money in the World – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 11 January, 2018

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The strange story of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping is unremarkable and risk-averse.

It’s the movie that will forever be known as the one in which Kevin Spacey played the one-time richest man in the world, J Paul Getty. Until he didn’t. After sexual-abuse allegations against the actor emerged late last year, director Ridley Scott executed a last-minute find-and-replace on his role, bringing in Christopher Plummer in an effort to avoid a backlash at the box office and on the awards podium.

The 11th-hour substitution, however, may just be the most interesting thing about Scott’s dramatisation of the bizarre 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s teenage grandson.

Yes, Plummer is seamlessly integrated into the film and, by the looks of it, with less strain on the latex budget than his predecessor. He’s a good fit for the famously miserly octogenarian oil billionaire, whom he plays convincingly while showing the sort of restraint that you wouldn’t expect from Spacey in an Oscar-bait role. Perhaps things worked out for the best.

But based loosely – “inspired by true events”, say the credits – on the book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, by John Pearson, the film itself is a curious mix.

It’s part true-crime story turned airport thriller and part character study of the penny-pinching, art-hoarding, family-allergic Getty Sr. His life is recounted with occasional overtones of opera, Citizen Kane and Scrooge McDuck.

Any outside reading about the Getty clan and when the 16-year-old John Paul Getty III was taken hostage by the Calabrian Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, suggests the whole story is far stranger, seedier and much more redolent of the 70s than this routine, atmosphere-free movie depicts.

After the young Getty, looking like an escapee from The Partridge Family, is bundled into a van on the streets of Rome, the film flashes back to various earlier episodes in his and his grandfather’s lives.

That’s to explain why his surname has put such a high price on his head, despite his having being raised in modest circumstances by his father, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan from Broadchurch, suffering yet more family tragedy), and mother Gail (née Harris, played by Michelle Williams). They are divorced after Dad starts work for the father he never really knew and becomes a drug addict. Gail gets custody of their four children after facing down Getty Sr and his lawyers.

A few years later, when her oldest son is taken hostage, her former father-in-law refuses to pay the US$17 million ransom demand, thinking it might be a ruse of the boy’s own making.

He does, however, send to Italy his right-hand man, Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-CIA operative. He is to resolve the situation “as quickly and as inexpensively as possible”.

The character requires Wahlberg to be the smartest guy in the room. It proves too big an ask in most of his scenes, including the one where he’s left to look after Gail’s younger children – although his weak performance is compensated for by Williams, with whom he shares most of his screen time.

As the single-minded Harris, Williams carries much of the film, and its best scenes are the ones where she’s head-to-head with Plummer’s unforgiving Getty.

As his dysfunctional family unravels over his kidnapping, young John Paul (pretty but bland newcomer Charlie Plummer, no relation) endures his increasingly desperate abductors who, as Italians, can’t believe his flesh and blood aren’t paying instantly for his return.

Plummer’s performance makes Getty a memorable, terrible tycoon, and bringing him in for the redo is a gamble that paid off. But the film is risk-averse and unremarkable.

It certainly leaves room for Danny Boyle’s forthcoming television series on the same case to tap the stranger-than-fiction weirdness that All the Money in the World fails to capitalise on.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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