The rich, as the oft-quoted saw goes, are different. That is the central premise of ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, a cautionary tale of money and family. The moving force, though only a supporting player in the proceedings, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), who at one point reminisces about a book he wrote entitled How to Be Rich. The publisher, he notes with cool condescension, wanted to call it “How to Get Rich”, but as Getty points out, any fool can >get< rich. It’s staying rich that is the trick, and every infuriating move J. Paul makes in the course of this taut thriller is an object lesson in how he became (and stayed) the richest man that ever lived. And the loneliest, culminating in a scene that is equal parts CITIZEN KANE’s Rosebud and the anti-climactic demise of Michael Corleone in the last of the Godfather Trilogy. Poetic justice or a sop to those of us who will never live in those rarefied heights? Maybe both.
Based in part on John Pearson’s book about the Getty family (Painfully Rich: J. Paul Getty and his Heirs), if focuses on the 1973 kidnapping in Rome of J. Paul’s grandson, Paul (Charlie Plummer), a prolonged agony for the perfectly likeable 17-year-old and for his mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), who is un-amicably divorced from J. Paul’s debauched son (Andrew Buchan). While J. Paul’s stinginess was legendary (we see the pay phone he installed in his English manor for the “convenience” of his guest needing to make calls), she is as shocked to learn that her ex father-in-law will not pay the 17 million dollars in ransom, as the kidnappers are to discover that Mrs. Getty has no money of her own to speak of. In fact, she is at one point two months behind in her rent.
The story skips back and forth between past and present, introducing us to J. Paul’s genius in revolutionizing the oil business, and the enormity of his ego that includes naming the first supertanker after himself. As for the legendary cheapness. greets his long-estranged son, Paul’s father, while rinsing out a few socks and shorts in the bathroom of his sumptuous hotel room. Not only does it same him a few lira, it’s tax deductible. With Plummer’s considerable talents, though, there is more to this titan of industry. We have no trouble believing that J. Paul is inordinately fond of Paul, and the feeling is mutual, even as the relationship between Gail and J. Paul turns increasingly poisonous. So when we, along with Gail, see J. Paul on television responding to a reporter’s query about how much he would pay for Paul’s release, the casual callousness of “nothing” hits especially hard.
With dark twists that mirror the machinations of J. Paul’s mind, Ridley Scott has crafted a thriller to fray the nerves even of those who are familiar with the story, and to surprise us as he spins a story about how mutually exclusive money and trust can be. Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the fixer J. Paul sends to Rome tasked with saving Paul with his ex-CIA training and contacts decides that it’s a ruse by the boy himself to scam some cash from his grandfather. The Rome police are inclined to agree, leaving Gail as emotionally isolated and desperate as her kidnapped son, becoming more desperate, but not one whit less self-possessed or less determined to save her son. Indeed, in Williams’ performance there is a startling steel to the maternal instinct that is as savage as the Valkyries, and as tender as the Holy Virgin’s.
This is a tale wherein that ci-mentioned trust is the most precious of commodities as money, or rather the love of it or the need for it, insinuates itself into every situation. It makes the exceptions to that rule all the more remarkable when it appears. A state of affairs perfectly distilled in the sequence where young Paul’s ear is severed as a gruesome squeeze tactic by his increasingly frustrated kidnapper. The disinterested doctor there for his fee and the good wishes of the gangster who has bought Paul from his original kidnappers is contrasted with one of those original kidnapper (Romain Duris) who, counter-intuitively, holds Paul down as an act of non-intuitive compassion that leads to a tentative sort of trust between the two, even a fraternal affection. His phone calls to Gail, demanding money, threatening further harm to the boy, are brusque and menacing on the surface, as Duris, in a tour-de-force performance, exposes his character’s own mounting despair about a positive outcome.
Yet it is Plummer who dominates the film as much as J. Paul dominates the story. With his urbanely affable calculation, equally personable in any situation whether cutting the throat (metaphorically) of a business adversary or waxing rhapsodic about his previous incarnation as the Emperor Hadrian, is a marvel of monstrosity, yet hypnotically fascinating. There are levels at work here, and the childlike satisfaction of lording it over all those around him without having to overtly press his advantage, even against Wahlberg’s equally commanding, if more muscular, presence. To answer the question on everyone’s mind, no, you can’t tell that another actor once played the role, and was replaced with some dandy CGI by Plummer a month before the release date. Less than that for those of us who saw a preview screening a week or more before that.
Lean, dark, and genuinely terrifying for many reasons, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is a superb piece of filmmaking and as riveting as Scott has made in any genre.