The story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother to convince his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty to pay the ransom.
It’s late in the night and a beautiful mop-haired teenager (Charlie Plummer), barely more than a child, flirts with sex workers beside fountains that belong in a Fellini film. He speaks good Italian but is clearly a rich American brat. In an instant he’s kidnapped by a van full of masked men who demand a ransom of 17 million dollars. This shouldn’t be a problem. The boy’s grandfather is John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the richest billionaire in the world – but also the meanest and stingiest. He refuses to pay a penny. Six months of trauma ensue as the boy’s distraught but dignified mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), embarks on a mission to beg, win or wheedle the sum she needs.
Inspired by real events around the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973, and based on John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: the Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, Ridley Scott’s latest film is a tense crime thriller with an unforgettable monster at its heart. Like the heated media scrum around the real kidnapping, the film itself has attracted media furore because of the last-minute re-shooting and re-editing to replace disgraced actor Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of the hard-hearted tycoon.
The good news is that Plummer is perfect as the calcified miser who must win at all costs. Spacey would no doubt have created his own brilliant villain (perhaps one day we’ll see that version on a DVD extra), but now it’s hard to imagine anyone bettering Plummer’s Getty. In his beloved and iconic performance as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music he was a charismatic authoritarian revealing a secret soft heart. Here, there’s no heart at all, but character’s power and monstrous resolve make him fascinating. In scene after scene we see the jaw-dropping callousness and arrogance that made Getty the richest man in the history of the world, one who knew the price of everything, but by any normal human measure, the value of nothing. It’s unsurprising that he fancies himself the reincarnation of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (complete with doomy choral soundtrack), and that eventually he disgusts even his own loyal employee, the ex-CIA agent (Mark Wahlberg) tasked with getting the boy back.
The performances are universally good, though perhaps at times Michelle Williams and Romain Duris (playing the kindest of the kidnappers) pour their accents on a bit thick: she as the privileged but penniless divorcee; he as the Italian thug making increasingly threatening phone-calls. Overall, however, realism is maintained and a certain restraint keeps the production from full-blown Ridley Scott excess, even while the story travels far and fast from Rome to England and countryside Italy, and takes in a grisly extended surgery involving the removal of an ear (this really happened). The pacey screenplay is by David Scarpa (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008) and the film is shot and edited with skill by Scott’s regular DOP Dariusz Wolski and editor Claire Simpson, both of whom should be commended for their work, especially considering the demands of a re-shoot just a month before release.
Still, this is a Scott film. The prolific 80-year-old director of overblown works including Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings allows himself some questionable narrative flourishes particularly towards the end: redundant mafia chase scenes and a conclusion of operatic but completely fictional proportions. Minor quibbles aside, All the Money in the World is a well-structured, effective and engaging thriller that takes us deep inside the paradoxical and eternally fascinating psychology of the very rich. It’s a film that delivers an evergreen message: that all the riches in the world cannot buy happiness, safety or love.