Even with Christopher Plummer’s superb job of bottom-of-the-ninth, out-of-the-park pinch-hitting, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World needed more than just a Kevin Spacey substitute to keep it from drifting off into the land of poor relations.
All the Money in the World
The trailer featuring Spacey was still playing in theaters the evening before the picture screened. Scott and his team learned of the sexual allegations leveled against the actor six weeks prior to opening. Substituting Plummer for Spacey took ten days to film and was fully underwritten by Scott and his partners at Imperative Entertainment. For the first hour or so, half the fun was looking for digital cheats or surgical scars. Given the time constraints, one wondered if the pixel doctors would simply graft Plummer’s face on Spacey’s body. I can assure you that all of the scenes featuring J. Paul Getty are 100 percent Plummer.
It doesn’t take long after the credits for the snatch-and-grab that rocked the world once upon a time to occur. After a La Dolce Vita–ish stroll past Rome’s Trevi Fountain, the pigment illumines and the film trades black-and-white for color while John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) shifts his attention to a group of motherly streetwalkers. Before a price can be haggled, a van pulls up, fits him for a hood, and drives off into the night. Thus begins our 16-year-old victim’s five-month ordeal being held captive in a cave somewhere in the mountains of Calabria.
What shocked the world more than the actual kidnapping and subsequent unharboring of the boy’s ear was Old Man Getty’s famously unfavorable response to the ransom demand of $17 million. That amounted to chump change for a guy like him, but if a fool and his money were soon parted, it’s no wonder shrewd J. Paul lived and died by the appellation of the wealthiest man who ever walked.
All the dough in the world and J. Paul was still afraid of going broke. “If you can count your money, you’re not a billionaire” was a favorite saying of his. J. Paul wanted a dynasty but his son was an addict. In his youth, grandson John Paul barely knew his grandfather. They met twice: one when the boy was 11 and again at age 15 when he and his family were summoned for an audience with the pecunious recluse. John Paul took dictation when called upon to answer his grandfather’s mail. In response to a woman’s request for money that would go toward a life-saving operation for her son, J. Paul decreed something along the lines of, “If I were to give money to everyone who asked for it, I’d soon be as destitute as you.”
An opening title card proudly boasts, “Inspired by true events,” a descriptor that stands a few steps below the dreaded “Based on a true story” advisory label. After about an hour, the film begins its flagrant fictionalization of facts for dramatic purposes. Did we need for screenwriter David Scarpa to turn John Paul’s occasional glances at his otherwise cowled captors into a running gag? I haven’t been able to find any proof that John Paul set fire to his makeshift jail cell in order to facilitate his escape. And a fictionalized sympathetic relationship between captor (Romain Duris) and captive was underdeveloped at best.
One can’t imagine Spacey bringing much warmth or humanity to the character. But there are moments in Plummer’s performance that almost elicit sympathy for the otherwise hermetic miser. Spacey’s loss was our gain.
Not since Doris Day struggled to save her son in Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much has one felt this level of hand-wringing frustration. Not only does the role of worried mother earn the insurmountable Michelle Williams a passel of sympathy points, her character holds the distinction of being the only person J. Paul ever met who didn’t want his money. Even though she wasn’t born into wealth, her relationship with moneybags might have been a key factor in helping to facilitate the forking over of a smaller ransom.
And then there’s iceberg Mark Wahlberg. It’s the same monotone delivery, topped by fewer facial expressions than one would find on Bella Hadid walking the runway. His ex-CIA operative-turned-paid-fixer, Fletcher Chace, had John Paul’s ear, but though he’s capable of nattily filling out a seersucker suit, Wahlberg’s performance is a wooden diving board off which Williams and Plummer execute faultless gainers. Thank heaven Scarpa didn’t falsify things to the point where Gail and Fletcher had a romantic fling.
Sadly, what the film packs in performances it lacks in vision. After an hour the film begins its slow and steady deceleration into formula, and all the money in the world can’t save it.
It turned out to be a Christopher Plummer Christmas. How many actors have played Santa (The Man Who Invented Christmas) and Scrooge in the same season and done justice to both characters?
I was up in Los Angeles last week for a press conference featuring Plummer(s), Scott, and Williams. For more, click here.