Going beyond the backstage drama

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Movie Review
All the Money in the World
Directed by Ridley Scott

By Richard Roeper

YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, Mr. Grinch — I mean, Mr. Getty.

You’re a 20th-century American version of Ebenezer Scrooge, scowling and mumbling your days away in your palace-sized mansion, which looks to be ice-cold even when the fireplace is roaring.

You’re a flinty, hard-eyed, coldhearted, nearly joyless penny pincher. You’re not only the richest man in the world, you’re also the richest man who ever lived — and yet when your grandson is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded, you claim you have no money to spare and you refuse to pay a dime.

You’re a monster, Mr. Getty. And you’re the most entertaining and fascinating character in All the Money in the World.

In Ridley Scott’s well-paced, great-looking and nimble take on one of the most famous kidnapping cases of the 20th century, the legendary Christopher Plummer disappears into the role of the billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty and delivers a powerful, magnetic, scene-stealing performance.

Plummer is playing someone we love to hate, and yet he infuses Getty with just enough humanity, just enough tragic (albeit self-inflicted) loneliness and unhappiness, we almost feel sorry for him even as we want to shake our fists at him for being such a miserable cuss.

This is no drop-in cameo. Plummer is in nearly two dozen scenes. He might not have as much screen time as Charlie Plummer (who is not related to Christopher Plummer) as the kidnapped teenager, John Paul Getty III; Michelle Williams as Abigail Harris, Paul’s mother; and Mark Wahlberg as Fletcher Chase, the security specialist tasked with bringing Paul home, but it is Christopher Plummer’s performance that resonates the strongest. Even when his character is off-screen, he casts a long shadow over everyone else’s actions.

And, yes, the performance is all the more remarkable because Mr. Plummer was in essence asked to save this movie, which had been completed with Kevin Spacey as Getty before the multiple allegations of criminal sexual abuse by Spacey.

To the credit of the studio, the filmmakers and many prominent cast members, everyone agreed to a hasty reshoot, which cost a reported $10 million and took place over a series of 18-hour days.

How surreal it must have been for Wahlberg and Williams to find themselves back in their 1970s period-piece wardrobes, gearing up for a number of intense, dialogue-heavy scenes they’d already played out with Spacey. How challenging it must have been for Plummer to engage in quick rehearsals and learn his lines and become a pivotal character in a major motion picture in just a matter of weeks.

And what a triumph for all concerned that if you didn’t know Spacey originally had been cast as Getty and you saw All the Money in the World as is, you wouldn’t notice the faintest ripple in the fabric of the film. It’s a good old-fashioned ripping yarn, based on an incredible true story, filled with fine acting and leaving us marveling at the enormous footprint J. Paul Getty left on the world — and shaking our heads at a man who seemed incapable of truly enjoying his staggering wealth and power, and unable to appreciate the true meaning of family.

All the Money in the World opens in Rome, 1973, with one of the most dazzling set pieces I’ve seen in many a year. The sweet-faced John Paul Getty III, aka just “Paul,” walks through the bustling streets, with everyone and everything bathed in gorgeous black-and-white. Gradually the colors of the night begin to bleed through, as Paul wanders into a dicey neighborhood, trades good-natured barbs with some ladies of the night, and is then abducted by the Red Brigade, a ragtag band of communist thugs.

Working from a script by David Scarpa, director Scott hops back and forth on the timeline — perhaps a little too frequently.

We get flashbacks to John Paul Getty’s business dealings with Arabian oil sheiks in the 1940s. We get domestic scenes set in the mid-1960s, when Getty’s estranged son, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), and his loving wife, Gail (Michelle Williams), are raising a brood of adorable kids and seem to be deeply in love, despite having no money and despite John’s alcohol (and eventually substance) abuse.

And we learn about Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chase, a former black-ops spook who now handles the old man’s security, and so much more. (Let’s put it this way: When Chase is asked if he carries a gun, he scoffs and says if you’re carrying a gun you’re a nobody who doesn’t know how to really get things done.)

When Paul is kidnapped, it makes international news, but things take a bizarre twist when Getty refuses to pay the $17-million ransom. As Fletcher finds himself becoming increasingly sympathetic to Abigail (even though he’s on the old man’s payroll) and the months drag on, poor Paul is actually sold to an even nastier bunch of bad hombres, who cut off Paul’s ear and send it in the mail, warning they’ll continue sending pieces of Paul if their demands aren’t met.

All the Money in the World is “inspired by real events,” and though most of the major developments indeed happened, there’s plenty of dramatic license, especially in the climactic final chapters. One dramatic (and totally fictional) flourish seems particularly unnecessary and cheapens the impact, but just a little.

For a time, this movie will probably be best known for the behind-the-scenes drama. But the work itself deserves to endure as one of the better films of 2017. — Chicago Sun-Times/Andrews McMeel Syndication

Rating: Three stars and a half
MTRCB Rating: R-13