As great directors go, Ridley Scott seems the opposite of a tortured artist. You don’t get the sense that the fear of making a bad movie has ever kept him up at night. He’d just make another. When you hire him, you’re paying for 40 odd years of experience and unmatched technical expertise, you’re not paying him to care. If it’s there in the script, he’ll make it happen. If it’s not he’ll do his best. Which is to say that he’s more of a jobber than an auteur, albeit one of the all-time great jobbers. For the viewer, that means sometimes you get Alien and sometimes you get Exodus: Gods And Kings. All The Money In The World is… well, somewhere in between — a perfectly well-made, entertaining film that never quite passes the “Why are you telling me this?” test.
The film follows the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer – no relation), a man who’s not just the richest man in the world, the younger Getty’s voiceover informs us, but the richest man in the history of the world. The opening scenes depict JP3’s kidnapping on the streets of Rome, and the rest of the film jumps between the quest to get him back and flashbacks from the life of the younger Getty and especially his mother, Abigail Getty (née Harris, played by Michelle Williams).
The trouble is, the younger Getty’s family doesn’t have the ransom money. And his grandfather, who does, is… well, kind of an asshole. In fact from the start, the film is about as subtle a depiction of a misanthropic rich man as the bowling alley scene in There Will Be Blood. JP1’s counteroffer to the kidnappers, who’ve demanded $17 million, at a press conference? “Nothing.”
Christopher Plummer’s first scene (he famously replaced the scandal-tainted Kevin Spacey just a few months before release) opposite Williams is a flashback to their first meeting, at a Rome hotel, where JP1’s suite is strewn with valuable art (he lectures Abigail for calling it “priceless” — everything has its price), but also his hanging clothes. Why pay some hotel maid $10 to do it when he can handle it himself for a fraction of that? It’s, ah, not what you’d call a “layered” characterization. Yet the film manages to keep it entertaining by revealing if not a breadth of character, certainly the increasing depths of his untainted assholery.
Abigail offers the outsider’s perspective, having married into the Getty family while JP2 (Andrew Buchan) was just a San Francisco Bohemian who hadn’t spoken to his father in years. Only he runs out of money and ends up running back to his father for a job, and suddenly she’s not just a wife and mother, but a Getty, pronounced with italics. And the old man loves to lecture anyone within earshot about what it means to be Getty.
Despite these frequent lectures, and despite the younger Getty’s initial voiceover telling us that the Gettys are more like aliens, appearing as regular humans though they’re made of different stuff, the film never quite comes through on the promise to explain what it means to be a Getty. The old man is a son of a bitch, his son is a wastrel, Abigail is a concerned mother, and JP3 is an interesting kid who seems like he has hidden depths (sort of an ersatz Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood with more acting ability), but he doesn’t get much to do beyond looking scared and dirty while his kidnappers try to cash him in like a golden ticket. The kidnappers too, are sort of interesting and the main one, Cinquanta, played by Romain Duris, can’t figure out what the hell is wrong with these Americans that they’d drive a hard bargain with virtually unlimited money and their son’s life at stake. Een-a Eetaly, a-familia is-a molto importante!
Mark Wahlberg gets in on the action too, playing a former CIA spook turned Getty Family fixer named Fletcher Chase, who gets a climactic turning point alone with the big man next to a big fireplace (rich guys always get told off next to fireplaces for some reason). Despite his otherwise good work, it’s the one moment in the film that notably doesn’t land.
Ridley Scott shoots a nice scene, and all of these scenes are compelling in and of themselves, but they never quite become more than the sum of their parts. Who is this movie about? The old man? Abigail? JP3? Fletcher? They’re all interesting, but none are explored. The epilogue text at the end tells us what happened to the Getty fortune, but not what happened to the Gettys themselves. Was that it? Was the movie about the money itself?
Written by David Scarpa and based on John Pearson’s book, All The Money In The World is an interesting story delivered by a proficient (if utilitarian) storyteller, but it never quite offers a take on the material. What’s the angle here? Which is not to say we need them to editorialize or preach, we just want to know why anyone thought this particular story was worth telling. That’s what it would take to make this a story that demands to be heard and not just an above-average diversion.