All the Money in the World is a fascinating examination of wealth as virtue's poor substitute

By Leigh Monson
 
   All the Money in the World will remain a fascinating artifact of film history, even as its story and performances become secondary to the way the film fits into the already impressive legacy of director Ridley Scott. Replacing a prominent supporting actor is a Herculean task for a film to undertake, requiring a lot of added expense and effort to reassemble actors and crew, and yet Scott and company scrubbed nearly all traces of Kevin Spacey from the film to insert Christopher Plummer, all while managing to complete the film to be released a mere three days after the date initially planned.
   That's a story that would overshadow any film, but it's also one that provokes one's curiosity over whether the final product can live up to the hype. Thankfully, the real miracle is that Ridley Scott was able to pull a good movie out of this mess, and its faults can't be blamed on the reshoots.
   For those unfamiliar with J. Paul Getty (the character now played by Christopher Plummer), he was at one time the richest man in the world, an oil baron who perhaps became most infamous after the abduction of his grandson, J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer). When asked a ransom, the elder Getty refused to pay it on the principle that he would set a precedent for others to kidnap his other grandchildren for monetary gain, much to the dismay of the younger Getty's mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams).
   As the primary point of contact with the kidnappers, Gail fights to both reduce the sum of her son's ransom and convince her ex-husband's father to give up a small portion of his fortune to secure his grandson's life. The only thing Getty Sr. provides is a negotiator by the name of Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).
   All the Money in the World gets by primarily on the strength of its performances, even with Mark Wahlberg struggling to keep up with the greats he has found himself among. Michelle Williams plays the role of the tortured mother to great effect, walking a tightrope between vindictive rage against Getty Sr. and the paralyzing fear that she may never see her son again. Charlie Plummer is remarkably understated in his turn as a wealthy kidnapping victim, delivering a quiet strength to a character that only needed to sit there for the purposes of the narrative. But of course it's Christopher Plummer who steals the show, imbuing in J. Paul Getty a sense of egotism that fuels his obsession with accumulating wealth.
   However, the gravity of J. Paul Getty's portrayal is a double-edged sword, and it goes deeper than Christopher Plummer's magnetic performance. As a treatise on the corrupting power of wealth on one's moral priorities, this is a film that doesn't know the meaning of the word subtlety, and though we are treated to some excellent early scenes that demonstrate Getty's self-perception as a reincarnated emperor and his unstated belief that wealth is the true measure of moral virtue, the film shows its thematic hand too early. Once the point is made about just who Getty was by the end of the first act, the remaining two-thirds feel like a waiting game of inevitability, albeit one that is tensely performed and leads to a thrilling conclusion. This is a narrative that would have perhaps been better served by shrouding J. Paul Getty in mystery only to have his depravity later revealed, rather than showing off its star performance before getting to the real plot.
   However, this doesn't detract from the excellent performances on display and the excellent direction they were given, especially considering that much of it was filmed on a very restrictive timetable. All the Money in the World may not be one of the year's best films, but it's most certainly one of the most fascinating, and getting to see the result of a historically massive cinematic undertaking is worth the price of admission alone. Just don't expect that fascination to carry it into your year's Best Of list.

3.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.