By Preston Wilder
We need to talk about Kevin Spacey, who starred in All the Money in the World until allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him, whereupon his performance was expunged and his scenes re-shot with Christopher Plummer. It’s shocking that an actor’s work – his creative life – can be destroyed for something he did in his private life. It’s shocking that so much creative effort can be squandered so casually. That said, I suspect – even beyond the bad publicity Spacey’s presence would’ve attached to the project – that director Ridley Scott saw an opportunity in the actor’s disgrace, and indeed he’s admitted that Plummer was originally his first choice for the role (the studio wanted a bigger name). I don’t care how politically correct you are, nobody re-fashions their entire movie at the last minute unless they’re convinced it’ll work.
The switch may have been a good idea. I assume the Spacey footage will turn up eventually, if/when the furore over his sexual indiscretions dies down – but Spacey has a naturally sardonic presence whereas 87-year-old Plummer, though equally cold, is more of a canny bad-grandpa figure. There’s a scene where he tells right-hand man Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) that he loves his grandson – and the words might’ve seemed less convincing in Spacey’s mouth, if only because Plummer is older and innately more vulnerable. Not that the old man goes soft, however: his love for 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) is obviously a twisted, narcissistic kind of love, and of course it can never be allowed to obscure “the value of a dollar”.
Plummer Sr. is John Paul Getty Sr., the world’s richest man, whose grandson is kidnapped in Italy and held for a $17 million ransom (this really happened, in 1973). Getty, an oilman, was the first billionaire in human history, though he’s not entirely sure how much money he has: “If you can count your money,” he quips, “you’re not a billionaire”. (This is an actual quote, Getty having apparently had a sharper sense of humour than the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos; it’s not in the movie, but he once defined his formula for success as “rise early, work late, and strike oil”!) Getty is also frugal – or just a bastard – and refuses to pay the ransom, especially since he’s estranged from his grandson and daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams). I have 14 grandchildren, he reasons, using the same self-serving logic he employs to fend off all pleas for money, however desperate; if I start paying ransoms, I’ll end up with 14 kidnapped grandchildren. “Forgive us,” sighs the boy, addressing the audience in a brief, unexplained voice-over. “It’s like we’re from another planet”.
‘We’, of course, are the super-rich, which is also the film’s true subject – the rich being different, unlike us mere mortals. Gail isn’t rich, quite the opposite; and Fletcher, sent by Getty to help out, is a regular guy, almost to a fault (this is one of Wahlberg’s most anonymous performances). Getty is by far the juiciest role here: cunning, duplicitous when it suits him, hunched over a telex machine perusing strips of paper with the latest stock prices. His passions are money and, surprisingly, family – but not in a tender way, just a clannish pride in being “a Getty”. “Those children are my blood, and she took them!” he rages, ‘she’ being Gail; his motive for refusing to pay turns out to be resentment – and perhaps a dose of self-loathing, since he agreed to grant Gail full custody in exchange for a cheaper divorce. She knew he’d put money over family, and he can’t forgive her for knowing that.
That’s a smart psychological insight – albeit probably the only one in the whole movie. None of the other characters are very interesting, though Williams is subtle and young Plummer, from the upcoming Lean on Pete, is a strikingly androgynous presence. Getty’s odiousness was never going to get much nuance, given populist anger against the ‘one per cent’: “You greedy animals! You are the worst criminals of all!” cries the chief kidnapper, speaking (more or less) for the whole movie. Worst of all, this is a story that stalls and stays stalled: Getty won’t pay, Gail is out of ideas, and Ridley Scott offers only misdirection – we think the kid is dead, but he’s not – and glimpses of lifestyle porn.
Still, the details are enjoyable. Tight-fisted Getty has a red telephone box installed in his home, for guests to make phone calls (the butler is happy to supply change). Getty, in a gorgeous snow-flecked flashback, claims to be the modern reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian. Scott makes good-looking movies; more to the point, after 45 years in the business, it seems he can make movies effortlessly, re-shooting major chunks with a different actor without the joins showing. Is this proof of his genius – or something else altogether, an old man’s heartlessness perhaps, making films with such mechanical skill he can easily make the same film twice? Or was the Kevin Spacey version wildly different? We’ll never know.
DIRECTED BY Ridley Scott
STARRING Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer
US 2017 132 mins