Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg
Though it can’t possibly have been the press of his choosing, the hubbub surrounding Kevin Spacey’s fall from grace may have provided Ridley Scott with much-needed momentum for his new movie All The Money In The World, an elaboration of a true-life yarn that had been struggling to get anybody’s pulse racing. It left the octogenarian director on the precipice of a PR disaster; Spacey had a key role here, and he was prominently placed in the advertising. But only the foolish would forget that, while Scott may have become many things throughout his career, he started out as an ad man. He knows how to spin a situation. And he knows how to work fast. And so here we are, three short months later, with a completed film in which Spacey has been wholly replaced by Christopher Plummer. And Plummer is on very fine form indeed.
Narrowly averting disaster is hay that makes itself. And All The Money In The World has gone from awards season also-ran to dark curiosity. Skipping Scott’s latest seemed like a reasonable option considering some of his recent output. Broad entertainment piece The Martian aside, it’s been a decade of disappointments, from the whitewashed bore of Exodus: Gods and Kings through last year’s abysmal Alien Covenant. Scott’s arrogance, however, has remained firmly intact. He blames the marketing for the failure of The Counsellor, of course.
Here Plummer stars as oil magnate J. Paul Getty; the richest man in the world. Building that wealth and sustaining it has taken much from him, chiefly any affection for people. His mind wired to averting all losses, emotional connections have been equated with weakness and jettisoned swiftly; their prices are just too high. Thus, when his grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped and held for ransom, Getty isn’t rushing to pay the requested $17 million, much the dismay of Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams). Gail is not blood; she is Getty’s daughter-in-law. But while Getty has clear fondness for his grandson, he is mired in his ways, unable to find recourse to bow to extortion. Instead, he dispatches his security specialist, ex-CIA man Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to bring Paul back without paying out a cent. Cue your two-hour movie.
You can’t help but feel distracted in the opening 20 minutes or so, scouring Plummer’s scenes for signs of the digital switcheroo, but this dissipates as Scott craftily steers us through some his loosest (and, by extension, best) work in years. Which is not to say that All The Money In The World is in any way sloppy. On the contrary it is, like Scott, extraordinarily efficient. But it doesn’t behave like a weighty contender for your admiration. It looks smart, it’s healthily constructed and edited, but this comes with an airiness, a breeziness that is rarely seen in the man’s work. Perhaps its the fortune of working with a half-way decent script for a change (he’s steered some howlers of late). While hardly set at a breakneck pace, the film moves at a comfortable clip, and with its gaze into the warped perspective of extreme wealth, conjures oddball conundrums for viewers to muse over in the process.
The fashioning of early 70’s Italy is done with some smart economy, too. The production design here gamely blends the aesthetics of Fellini’s paparazzi Italia with the earthier tones of the era’s countless giallo pictures. And while there’s no knife-wielding maniac on the loose or conspicuous J&B product placement, the storyline’s airing of the rich’s dirty laundry isn’t a million miles from the recurring themes of those Italian crime thrillers of yore. Immaculate presentation is par for the course with Ridders, however. It’s the content that’s largely caused him strife lately.
For the most part All The Money In The World excels when it plays things simply. This is a sinuous entertainment piece, in the main, and one that encourages the viewer to take it as such. The tone is never campy, but neither is it too severe. If it were a Spielberg film you’d pitch it somewhere directly between Catch Me If You Can and Munich. The seamless blending of Christopher Plummer into the mix aside, Scott doesn’t stop to showboat here. His ego is largely kept in check. The results are most flattering. Without his usual bluster, the picture is freed up to work as something one can more readily enjoy.
As intimated, Plummer is great, channeling a curmudgeon not wholly dissimilar to Daniel Plainview at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture (the film’s score seems notably indebted to Johnny Greenwood as a compliment to this). Elsewhere, Williams dignifies Gail. There’s plumminess to her that reads as appealing rather than gauche, even if the styles of the era mean she sometimes looks like Mike Myers’ Austin Powers. Wahlberg is functional and pared down. The same sense of relaxation appears in his performance. He doesn’t fuck it up, basically.
Things do wane a little by the time the third act rolls around and we follow young Paul through a series of misadventures that make Kim Bauer from 24 seem fortunate. The film overextends itself slightly, and there’s a sense of revisionism from screenwriter David Scarpa; the timelines of certain events occurring together feels a little too convenient. This throws things off a touch. Granted, Scott still manages to chuck in a bit of the gothic devilry that made the weird middle of Covenant such an oddity, but All The Money In The World exits with a fizzle rather than the kind of sprightly punch that the first half may have suggested.
There’s a perverse admiration for Getty coming from behind the camera, a dark sense of the kindred. Of a man eyeing himself cagily in a funhouse mirror. This openness from Scott, intentional or not, adds a metatextual element that can’t help but make this an oddly fascinating entry in his career. Perhaps, in ways, a threateningly autobiographical one. This is all presumption of course, based on the figure Scott projects through his interviews and commentaries. But if so, it’s an avenue of inquiry he should explore further; it makes for inadvertently curious cinema.