The richest man in the history of the world hang dries his boxers rather than pay $10 for hotel laundry service. He has a payphone in his gothic mansion so his guests won’t add charges to his phone bill. He has his lawyer search for tax deductions like a bloodhound. And when his grandson is kidnapped, he refuses to pay the ransom.
That’s J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the oil tycoon around whom the plot of All the Money in the World revolves. At the beginning of the film, set in 1973, Getty’s grandson Paul, played by Christopher Plummer’s actual grandson Charlie, is dragged into a van while walking the streets of Rome. The kidnappers demand $17 million, a manageable sum for Getty, whose oil fortunes are booming beyond belief.
Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) sets out to convince Getty to pay the ransom and get her son back. Getty dispatches ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help find the boy. From there, the film delves into the twists and turns of the kidnapping and subsequent attempts to save Paul, despite his grandfather’s consistent refusal to pay any ransom whatsoever.
The film examines what kind of man would refuse to pay his grandson’s ransom when he has more than enough money. It examines the broken psyche of someone who could continue building another multi-millionaire dollar estate instead of saving his grandson. This fascinating character study is lodged within the main thriller plotline, full of rescue attempts, foiled escapes, and other classic kidnapping fare. More so than the action, it’s the look into Getty’s almost cartoonish cheapness and the effect it had on those around him that makes All the Money in the World a worthwhile movie. Much of that has to do with Christopher Plummer’s performance.
And now we arrive at the controversy. As you probably know, Getty was originally played by a prosthetic-laden Kevin Spacey, who was seen in the original trailer. But when sexual assault allegations came out about the actor, director Ridley Scott pulled him from the movie. In an unprecedented move, he contacted Plummer, his first choice for the part, and re-shot every scene involving Getty within the span of nine days—just in time to make the original release date.
The results are remarkable. During Plummer’s first scene, the knowledge that this was filmed in a miniscule window of time with little preparation can lead to hyper-scrutiny, but it all holds up. By the end of the movie, it’s easy to forget the circumstances of the shoot. Plummer’s portrayal of Getty is one of the most enjoyable and moving parts of the movie. He finds the dark humor, mind-boggling cruelty, and hidden humanity in Getty, stealing every scene. This past week, Plummer received a somewhat unexpected Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal, which he clearly deserves.
Williams delivers a captivating performance as well, playing the distraught mother who holds back her tears while wading through a frenzy of heartless reporters, as her situation grows increasingly desperate. Wahlberg brings his best GQ game, consistently looking cool as hell in his ’70s suits, and delivers on the tough-guy persona he plays. An unexpectedly moving performance comes in the form of one of Paul’s kidnappers, played by Romain Duris, who gives his character depth beyond the other kidnappers, who essentially remain faceless thugs.
The film packs a lot into its two-hour runtime and, with the exception of a few somewhat clunky moments of expository dialogue, does it well. Even if you know how the real life story ends, Scott skillfully ratchets up the narrative tension enough to keep the viewer engaged.
One of the movie’s particular strengths is its balance of humor and drama. Harrowing scenes of Paul’s treatment at the hands of the kidnappers are wrenching, while scenes showcasing Getty’s absurd lifestyle and temperament are darkly amusing. Scenes that combine the two, such as when Getty casually purchases a $1.5 million dollar painting in the midst of ransom negotiations, work surprisingly well. They don’t muddle the tone, but instead accentuate the absurdity of the situation—making Getty both a laughable lunatic and a monster.
By the end of the movie, this outsized, psychotic character looms over every scene. His motivations, his ruthlessness, and even his frailty lend the film crucial emotional weight beyond the kidnapping plot. From the first time you see him hunched over the latest oil market numbers to the final glimpse of his pitiless scowl, J. Paul Getty is the core of this movie. Although his unbelievable cheapness might cause you to laugh at some points, it’s Gail’s final reaction to him that really sticks—frustrated tears over the man who negotiated with her son’s life.
Featured Image by Columbia Pictures