The fact-inspired crime thriller “All the Money in the World” is based on the kidnapping of the 16-year-old grandson of the richest man in recorded history.
The ransoming of John Paul Getty III by his Italian abductors captured international headlines in the autumn of 1973, but Ridley Scott’s dark, intriguing film is only partly about that. Its deeper focus is on people behaving as they shouldn’t behave, ignoring what’s of real value while pursuing things they don’t need. Whether they are dirt poor or wealthier than oil sheikhs, policemen or abductors, fathers or sons, a doctor with the ethics of a torturer or a lawyer using his fountain pen like a dagger, almost everyone in this rogue’s gallery operates in the most amoral ways possible.
In an introductory monologue, the pampered young heir says, “Being a Getty is an extraordinary thing. I know that because my grandpa told me so. I’m telling you this so you can understand the things you’re about to see. And maybe you can forgive us.”
These are the life lessons learned by Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) as she tries to weave her way through the serpentine domain of her father-in-law, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). The billionaire industrialist is, beneath a layer of superficial charm, a predator in the world of finance, a strategy he adopted mostly to smirk success at his own disapproving father.
Gail and the tycoon’s son John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) began their married life in the United States, far from the family’s empire. As a late-in-life olive branch to his son, long-neglected as Getty focused on his business “mission,” the old man imports him with Gail and their children to his beloved Rome. Though he knows from experience that fortunes can poison a family bloodline, he hands his inexperienced heir a vice president’s seat at Getty Oil. The new executive gradually drifts away, hanging out with Mick Jagger in Morocco and following a drug-fueled mission of his own.
Perhaps too late, Gail divorces him asking for nothing more than child custody. But Gail’s teenage son is pulled away from her by forces criminal, familial and narcotic. From the opening sequence showing him strolling footloose among Rome’s streetwalkers, dressed in neurotic trendiness, you know there’s trouble brewing. Unless you’re familiar with the actual case, you don’t realize how much will boil over.
Dragged off the streets, the boy is held for $17 million of his grandfather’s money. While that would be a pittance to him, Getty refuses to pay any amount. That’s partly because he tells a crowd of camera-snapping reporters that a ransom would expose his 14 other grandchildren to capture. It’s also because he is profoundly cynical. He views the money demand as an economic negotiation with amateurs he can overwhelm with his bargaining skills.
That leaves Gail, receiving phone commands from her son’s captors, treading water beside rival breeds of swamp vipers. She’s completely cut out of control because “I’m not a Getty.” Every act of help she needs from Getty becomes a clash with his diabolical ego.
The script by David Scarpa, based on the book “Painfully Rich” by John Pearson, is as succinct and frantic as if it were taken page by page from Gail’s diary. The multifaceted story thwarts easy evaluation. The plot jumps easily from corrupt officials (“calling the police won’t help,” a kidnapper honestly advises Gail), to Mafioso tough guys, to an economic emperor who precisely measures the cost of every step he takes, and to a few relatable human beings in between. Scott’s immaculate sense of cinematography, blocking and editing turn this into a tale of knuckle-gnawing anxiety.
The cast is by and large good and at points excellent. Mark Wahlberg is a bit underdone in his thin role as Fletcher Chase, a real-life CIA veteran brought in to oversee the investigation. But he does earn a solid moment in the spotlight when Chase sheds his deference of Getty and gives the old man a head-spinning sermon on where power really lies.
Williams, much better in this drama than in the musical romance “The Greatest Showman,” leaves a sharp mark on every scene. Playing a complex woman facing a life-or-death emergency, she demonstrates how a district judge’s daughter can exert her own control in crisis without becoming morally compromised herself. She balances the brave and touching sides of the woman’s character as she struggles to hold her own in clashing tug-of-war struggles.
And among the wide company of European actors, France’s Romain Duris is outstanding playing Cinquanta, the bandit who builds a limited level of honor and trust with his hostage.
But the hero of the day is Plummer, who is entirely invested in his role as Getty. He adds an unexpected dimension of jolly amiability to the robber baron role originally assigned to and then taken away from a disgraced Kevin Spacey. He remains a dreadful, closefisted miser, so his charm feels like the warm hand on your back that determines where to slide in the stiletto.
If Spacey had remained in the role, the social media disgrace that accompanied him would have derailed the project both by diminished box office appeal and distracting undertones surrounding the performance. His removal and Plummer’s rescue of the role is both an inspiring save of a troubled project and a bold rebuke to sexual impropriety. “The show must go on” hasn’t been so well put into operation in living memory.