all the money in the world review

Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World begins with a monologue from John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in which he explains to the audience that the sheer amount of money that the Gettys possessed might as well have meant that they came from a different planet. “We look like you,” he says, “But we’re not like you.” And indeed they aren’t. When Paul is kidnapped and his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to contact his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) for the $17 million ransom, J. Paul Getty refuses. As he tells his advisor (Mark Wahlberg), it’s not that he doesn’t have the money. It’s just that he doesn’t have the money to spare.

 It’s important to contextualize this sentiment. J. Paul Getty was an oil man, and one of the richest men who ever lived. The J. Paul Getty Trust, which he established in 1953, is the world’s richest art institution, and is responsible for, among others, the Getty Museum in L.A. In other words, this was not a man who couldn’t afford to part with a penny. And yet, he installed a pay phone in his home in England for guests to pay to place calls, instead of being able to call on his dime. And he at first refused, and then negotiated, his own grandson’s ransom.

For as long as Getty’s callousness is framed as the truly horrific part of the narrative, rather than the kidnapping itself, All the Money in the World works. After all, this is the story of the man who waited until the kidnappers’ desperation was to the point that they’d lowered the asking price to $2.9 million and cut off Paul’s ear to pay the ransom. And paid the maximum that was tax deductible and loaned the rest — with interest — to his son in order to get it done. When the focus drifts elsewhere, the film becomes just another kidnapping movie in a genre that’s full of better entries.

The key here is Christopher Plummer, who isn’t villainous so much as he is ice-cold. Throughout, there’s the sense that this movie could have been his There Will Be Blood if he’d had a larger part in it, and it’s thrilling right up until the story capitulates to what’s required for a happy ending. The details are historically accurate, broadly speaking, in that Getty eventually coughed up the money, but it’s hard to imagine that it happened as it does in the movie, i.e. as the result of a moral dressing-down.

Plummer’s performance is titanic, and though the rest of the film is good, it’s still a comedown by comparison. That is, with the exception of Romain Duris as the kidnapper with a heart of gold, who does his best with an extremely strange part and is easily the second-best part of the movie as a result. It’s just not a role that feels necessary — the ordeal of being kidnapped is harrowing as is — though Duris cranks the dramatic dial up delightfully high in order to compensate.

Williams and Wahlberg, who occupy the third and arguably the main storyline, similarly do their level best. Like Duris, Wahlberg is a little hemmed in by the script, as the subtler aspects of his character are gradually lost as the movie’s clip begins to demand an action man, and a moral compass from a man who’s been sold to us as lacking one. Williams fares a little better where consistency is concerned, turning in a fine performance as a woman struggling to take on a veritable institution on her own.

As long as the film focuses on money — and how it corrupts — it’s a thrill. It practically feels like money, as it glides through black and white sequences to segue into the pale, sickly greens that are associated with the dollar bill. Even the score, by Daniel Pemberton, is propulsive, and swings in a way that’s evocative of the kind of music that might accompany the entrance of a supervillain, not just a Scrooge. The movie is beautiful, as is apt given the man at its center’s penchant for beautiful things.

It feels oddly of a piece with Scott’s other film this year, Alien: Covenant, in that the ostensible villain is the most interesting part of it, and in that the most horrifying things are not necessarily the monsters that go bump in the night, but human impulses, and the shadow cast by legacy. It’s terribly grand in the best way possible, and Plummer’s final scene feels like it could have been ripped out of a gothic horror film.

Now, it’s inevitable that any discussion of this movie will circle around to the replacement of Kevin Spacey as Getty. For the most part, Plummer’s stepping into the role is seamless — there’s only one shot that looks like it’s been green-screened in. Otherwise, the part is Plummer’s, and Plummer’s completely, to the point that it’s hard to imagine that Spacey had ever had the role to begin with. (And anyway, good riddance.)

What works, however, doesn’t quite justify the existence of the film, which doesn’t have much of a moral point, or at least not one that feels like we don’t all know it already. The disconnect between the haves and have-nots begins to fade by the end of the film — it’s not a real Hollywood movie unless the icy hearts thaw by the time credits roll — leaving behind a faint image of the more striking work that this could have been. One wonders what Getty would make of that.

/Film Review: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.