The premise of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World can be summed up in one famous word, uttered by the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) to the press regarding the kidnapping of his grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer) in 1973. How much would Getty, at that point the richest man alive, pay to have the teenage boy returned safely? “Nothing,” he says, almost chortling at the thought. It was a real-life moment that seems worthy of Greek tragedy, and it’s at the core of Scott’s dramatic re-creation of the kidnapping. After all, what could possibly motivate a man of such means to think something so callous?
That’s the question underlying this quasi-biopic, quasi-thriller, which touches on how Getty got his riches and his miserly nature, as well as on the broad beats of the kidnapping story. This is a fable about the poisonous quality of wealth, one that attempts to burrow into the mind of a man who’d publicly announce his disinterest in rescuing his own grandson. But the film spends too much time in the gummy details of Paul’s kidnapping, a disturbingly farcical series of events that saw him passed around by Italian gangsters like a faded trophy, when all of its best material involves the elder Getty’s recalcitrance.
All the Money in the World is destined to be remembered best for the unique story of its production, in which Kevin Spacey (who originally played Getty) was replaced with Plummer less than two months before the film’s release after a slew of sexual-assault allegations against Spacey. That Scott somehow managed to re-shoot every scene involving Getty is nothing short of miraculous given the methodical nature of movie production. Plummer’s role isn’t small—he’s all over this film. Still, it’s telling that the behind-the-scenes drama looms larger than the movie itself. All the Money in the World is watchable and at times quite gripping, but it’s little more than a middling entry in Scott’s long career.
The film begins with Paul’s kidnapping. A flaxen-haired 16-year-old living in Rome, Paul was the son of John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), an erstwhile heir to the Getty Oil empire who struggled with substance abuse and had divorced Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams). So when Gail gets the ransom call, demanding $17 million for her son’s safe return, she has to petition her former father-in-law for help, not having a fortune of her own to tap. The only problem being that J. Paul Getty was not known for his generosity.
For much of the movie’s action, Getty is shut up inside a sumptuous English estate, with fine art crowding the walls and a stock ticker spitting out ceaseless information about just how rich he is. It’s here that he turns down Gail’s request for money and tells the press he wouldn’t pay a cent in ransom, his ostensible reason being that it would put his other family members at risk of being kidnapped in hopes of similar payouts. But Scott’s clear distaste for Getty’s kingdom of avarice is obvious: The tycoon’s mansion is a dark, gloomy place filmed with gray and green filters lorded over by an imperious grump.
Plummer is so good in his role that it’s genuinely hard to imagine a whole other movie exists with a whole other performance (one audiences will never see). He plays Getty with a soft touch, aware that his gruff inaction is horrifying enough and weirdly thrilling to behold without additional theatrics. As a tearful Gail demands Getty’s help, he waves her off, saying the markets are too volatile for him to put up $17 million at the moment, even though that’s the kind of money his company makes in a day.
It’s when Scott shifts his focus to the rescue attempts that things become more snooze-worthy. In the scenes in Getty’s manse, the film feels alive with energy, giving viewers a peek behind the curtain at a world most people couldn’t begin to fathom. The rest of the movie (written by David Scarpa) has all the drama of a long Wikipedia entry, shuffling from event to event with dull functionality. Unwilling to pay the ransom, Getty assigns his adviser Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative, to work with Gail and retrieve his grandson.
Wahlberg is horribly miscast—he’s best when he’s playing a guy on the bottom rung trying to nudge his way into acceptability, like in Boogie Nights or The Fighter. Fletcher is supposed to be a cool-headed expert, projecting calm authority as he guides Gail through the hostage-recovery process. In Wahlberg’s hands, Fletcher feels like a dope, a stuffed suit trying (and failing) to convince his boss to pay up once he realizes the very real danger Paul is in. Williams is better, affecting a blue-blooded New England twang, but her role is largely limited to worrying about her son; her performance only comes alive when she’s clashing with Getty.
At 132 minutes, the film is too long, indulging in many scenes of Paul’s imprisonment, which eventually takes a dark and very violent turn. But every time Scott swivels back to Getty, ensconced in his gilded tower, you get a glimpse of a masterpiece that might have been—as well as another chance to marvel at the 80-year-old director’s rapid-fire reshoots. All the Money in the World ultimately ends up feeling like a curio, albeit one with hints of something much grander hiding behind those Getty Estate walls.