“All the Money in the World” reminds us all, woe be the person who holds a powerful man’s beloved hostage. By which I mean Ridley Scott’s decision to replace Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer, so that his movie about the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s grandson could see the light of day — or the dark of multiplex, as it were — without an alleged sexual assaulter’s stigma gumming up the work.
(A competing Hollywood version of the saga is set to air on FX in January, so Scott surely wanted to make his juicy release date, too.)
Was the scrambling, intensity, and hoopla involved in replacing one Oscar winner for another — nine days of shooting while you were buying, prepping and eating Thanksgiving turkey — worth it? Absolutely, because not only was the visionary director’s continent-spanning movie clearly good to begin with, the 88-year-old Plummer’s Getty is now an indelible portrait of corrosive greed, the kind that can only view the challenges of the world, and within the oil tycoon’s own family, in terms of balance-sheet winners and losers.
As today’s tax-bill headlines deepen the sense that oblivious, wealth-obsessed old men are holding progress in captivity, “All the Money in the World” (and its unprecedented late infusion of talent capital in the form of Plummer) makes a valid case to be the movie of this miserly moment.
John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to his onscreen grandfather) was a long-haired, easygoing teenager in Italy living with his single mother Abigail (Michele Williams) — long divorced from the elder Getty’s son Paul (Andrew Buchan, “Broadchurch”) — when a nightly stroll among Rome’s revelers and prostitutes ends with his being snatched off the streets. (As an opening sequence, it’s a killer, shot like beautiful lost footage from “Fellini Roma” that ends with a moment out of a ’70s international terrorist drama.)
His captors are a Calabrian gang led by scruffy Cinquanta (Romain Duris, “The New Girlfriend”), whose ransom call to mom for $17 million sends her to England, and the sumptuous, chilly estate of the ex-father-in-law she thought she’d never have to deal with again, to ask that he pay it. But as efficiently established by a whirlwind series of intercut background scenes that detail Getty’s shrewd accumulation of wealth (oil in the Middle East), skinflintiness (hand-washing his shorts to avoid tipping a hotel’s staff), and cold views of family (a money-draining nuisance or simply property), parting with cash is a greater hardship than an endangered descendant. Getty refuses to pay up, preferring instead to hire Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-CIA negotiator in his employ, to root out the kidnappers, ideally within a reasonable expense budget.
So plays out in David Scarpa’s tight screenplay a morally queasy scenario in which the shadow of conscience-less affluence puts a young man’s life in bloody jeopardy as it also opens the eyes of some to the limits of that privilege. Williams is as good as ever, sporting a quivering mid-Atlantic accent and coiled body language; she makes achingly clear who she considers the real antagonist in her efforts to free her son. (Williams’ reaction after trying to sell one of Getty’s ancient trinkets to raise money is, pardon the pun, priceless in its moment of absurd clarity.)
Wahlberg is solid, too, making his shift in perception about his stingy boss a subtle furrowing around the eyes before delivering the screed we need to Getty’s face at the appropriate moment. The great French actor Duris has a tough role, but handles it with aplomb: the abductor turned father figure, who increasingly sees his captive as less a cash cow than an emotional victim worth protecting. The young Plummer, meanwhile, always looks appropriately stricken and confused by a predicament he didn’t think would take so long.
Scott whips it all into shape: the tense action involving the kidnappers, the investigation’s twists, the maddening campaign to give Getty a financial incentive in freeing his grandson, and the emotional toll it takes on everyone (Getty included). The parallels to “Citizen Kane” are certainly evident in the movie’s depiction of an eccentric recluse’s rabid obsession with collecting; for Getty, objects, which don’t change, take precedence to people, who only disappoint. And Plummer gives this side of the portrayal the mean, doddering heft of Welles mixed with Lear.
But Scott has also made a worthy successor to Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” in imbuing a ransom saga about the divide between rich and poor with a historically relevant, moral weight. Needless to say it’s an exquisitely handsome film, too. Forever painterly about color and camera angle, Scott, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“The Walk”), captures the stony patrician air of the Getty estate in England and the hot, teeming world of southern Italy like opposing forces of staleness and movement.
“What would it take for you to feel secure?” a character asks Getty at one point, rhetorically and sarcastically. But the petty billionaire has an answer: “More.” Ridley Scott, father of the “Alien” franchise, knows from soul-sucking baddies. But in “All the Money in the World” he’s also made the ultimate companion piece to all our superhero epics: a supervillain one.