In Rome in 1973, a grandson of the richest man in the world, J. Paul Getty, was kidnapped. In All the Money in the World, director Ridley Scott’s bizarre take on this story, Getty is the villain, while the kidnappers are simply dutiful professionals tasked with carrying out their unfortunate mission as best they can despite Getty’s intransigence about paying them ransom.
Scott has pulled off an amazing feat in that this film was virtually finished and slated for a Christmas release when his star, Kevin Spacey, became embroiled in a sex scandal that caused Scott to announce that he would reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer as Getty. This proved a bit awkward since Getty’s son, J. Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), is made to look exactly like Spacey, but otherwise Plummer is seamlessly interwoven into the movie.
Still, the details of how the film was lashed together are ultimately trivial. Getty, as portrayed by Plummer, does everything short of bathing in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck and calling out, “Smithers, release the hounds.” Scott’s film bashes him for two relentless hours. Why? Because according to Scott it was heartless and cruel of Getty, a billionaire, not to simply give the kidnappers what they initially asked for, which was $17 million. A pittance!
The shaggy-haired 16-year-old boy, J. Paul Getty III, known as Paul (played by a young actor coincidentally named Charlie Plummer, though unrelated to Christopher), is chatting with prostitutes on a balmy evening in Rome when men pull up in a van and spirit him away, unaware that the boy and his parents are all but estranged from his paternal grandfather, the Getty oil tycoon. Divorced from Getty Jr., Paul’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), reacts as any mother would, which is to say hysterically, and having no money of her own turns to her father-in-law for help. Cue Getty refusing to take the call because he’s too busy looking at ticker tape, clucking over his art collection, frying up the kidneys of destitute orphan children, etc.
Scott’s film is shameless pandering to an audience that (he thinks) is ravenous for stories about the heartlessness and moral vacuity of the wealthy. I think only critics (who are predictably swooning over the film) and not ticket-buyers are interested in this kind of howitzer attack on the plutocracy, but we’ll see. As a work of art, though, the film fails: It’s sheer caricature. The 80-year-old Scott, whose credits include Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator (along with many terrible movies: Exodus: Gods and Kings, A Good Year, Robin Hood, etc.), takes his usual care with design in creating a visually enticing recreation of the shabby early 1970s, and All the Money is for a while a reasonably absorbing thriller. But Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa (who based his script on John Pearson’s book) push their sans-culottes narrative to such an absurd degree that the actual villains here — the mafia kidnappers — not only largely escape Scott’s ire, but one of them (the French actor Romain Duris) is portrayed as a nice guy who at one point even saves Paul from further harm. The movie reaches its peak in absurdity when Getty changes his mind because his security chief/fixer/ex-spy (Mark Wahlberg) threatens to beat him up if he doesn’t.
Contra this film, as anyone who has ever thought about kidnapping for more than 4.8 seconds realizes, dealing with kidnappers demanding ransom is a tricky business. (For a granular look at the strategy and tactics, consult the excellent Russell Crowe–Meg Ryan film Proof of Life.) You don’t simply give hostage-takers what they want; they’ll demand more. Scott does give Getty a scene in which he protests that, having 14 grandchildren, to pay ransom for one would amount to declaring open season on all the rest (he doesn’t even mention his other relatives), but the whimsical, jocular tone Plummer takes in delivering this remark is meant, like virtually every other scene, to cast him as shockingly cruel and out of touch. In fact Paul had openly mused about staging his own kidnapping before the abduction occurred. When he was first kidnapped, his own mother suspected it was a hoax Paul had himself engineered. Moreover the kidnappers were not only vicious — they cut off part of Paul’s ear out of desperation — but inept at their trade. The police couldn’t be sure who the kidnappers were, since hundreds of letters were pouring in from others who claimed they had taken Paul. Finally the kidnappers sent the ear to a newspaper, but because of a postal strike in Italy the package took three weeks to arrive.
Scott isn’t interested in any of this, because it complicates his boo-the-rich formula, but straightening out the moral lines here is simple: Would he like it if his grandchild were kidnapped? Would he immediately pay whatever was asked? Would he see any of the kidnappers in a favorable light?