Thursday, January 4, 2018

All the Money in the World ... can't guarantee a perfect film

All the Money in the World (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, violence and drug use

By Derrick Bang

This film’s Christmas Day release couldn’t be more appropriate: Rarely has a real-world individual been depicted in a manner so reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

Invitation to catastrophe: Gail (Michelle Williams) and her husband John (Andrew Buchan,
right) assume that being embraced by his father, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer)
will be the best possible thing for their family, and particularly for their eldest child Paul
(Charlie Shotwell). How wrong they are...
Although All the Money in the World draws its stomach-clenching suspense from the uncertain fate endured by its young victim, director Ridley Scott’s film gets most of its juice from Christopher Plummer’s mesmerizing portrayal of billionaire J. Paul Getty: an avaricious, repugnant monster whose breathtakingly awful behavior knows no bounds.

Indeed, each example of cruelty is topped by one that’s much worse. We’re frequently inclined to believe that scripter David Scarpa fabricated this or that jaw-droppingly ludicrous detail ... but no. Getty really was that stingy and parsimonious, particularly with family members, and Plummer’s performance oozes heartless contempt. (How artistically fitting that Plummer recently played Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas.)

Scarpa’s script is drawn from the relevant portion of John Pearson’s 1995 book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. One can’t help feeling that it ain’t easy to be wealthy (although everybody would love to try).

I also can’t help wondering if Scott, Scarpa and Plummer intend this performance as a thinly veiled indictment of the similarly callous behavior currently emanating from the unfeeling über-rich in Washington, D.C.

Plummer is so perfect — so contemptibly vile — that it’s difficult to imagine anybody else in the role. And yet he was a last-minute replacement for the publicly disgraced Kevin Spacey, who had completed work on the film. Assuming Scott and Sony are willing to release that footage, it’ll be fascinating to compare the two performances, once this drama hits home video.

(Actually, 88-year-old Plummer seems a better choice than 68-year-old Spacey, given that Getty was 81 when these events went down.)

All the Money in the World concerns one of history’s most unusual — and protracted — crimes: the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, affectionately known as Paul. He endured half a year of imprisonment, from mid-July through mid-December, while his captors’ demands encountered a brick wall of refusal from the old man.

Plummer puts waspish disdain into the justification for his unwillingness to pay the ransom, in a quote gleefully reported by the Italian press, and made infamous throughout the world: “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

In theory, this seems the sage response: Never negotiate with terrorists.

In practice ... perhaps not so much.

The story’s core gravitas comes from the clash between Plummer’s immovable object and the unstoppable force of Gail Harris Getty, played with equal intensity by Michelle Williams. Although this performance isn’t as poignantly powerful as her Oscar-nominated role in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, she doesn’t miss by much; Gail’s grief and bewildered helplessness are palpable, as she’s repeatedly stonewalled by an army of attorneys, the latter typified by Timothy Hutton’s condescending Oswald Hinge.

The story’s most intriguing conceit is this clash between two determined characters almost never in each other’s presence. As the situation intensifies, Getty refuses to accept or return Gail’s increasingly anxious phone calls, nor will he see her.

Given her father-in-law’s reclusive nature, Gail became the primary conduit to the kidnappers, who — as the weeks and months pass — simply can’t believe that she, as a member of the Getty clan, can’t raise the ransom herself.

Events begin when Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) is snatched while foolishly strolling the less savory regions of Rome’s late-night streets. Charlie Plummer perfectly captures the rebellious teen’s foppishly Bohemian nature: the vacant smile, swanning manner, androgynous clothing and long, curly hair. He radiates foolishness: a puppy unaware that he’s surrounded by vipers.

The kidnapping seems inevitable, orchestrated by a scruffy crew of opportunists who conceal Paul in a mountain retreat, and demand a ransom of $17 million. One of them, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), comes to sympathize with the terrified boy; they bond warily over time, particularly as the increasingly astonished Cinquanta struggles to understand the dynamic between Gail and her stubborn father-in-law.

Duris makes Cinquanta a complex and fascinating character: a proudly Italian “family man” nonetheless honor-bound to adhere to the “cause” that the ransom money will help fund. Duris’ incredulity becomes almost comical, as Cinquanta comes to understand that (these particular) Americans have little use for family ties. Duris deftly sketches the man’s conflicting loyalties, as his compassionate nature prompts him to risk his own life, in an effort to stall and keep Paul alive.

And in one piece.

The elder Getty’s response is limited to ordering his security advisor and “fixer,” J. Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to suss out the situation. Although once affiliated with the CIA, Chase’s primary skills are psychological profiling and negotiation. It’s never really clear what Getty expects — that Chase will argue the kidnappers down to some insignificant sum, or somehow rescue the boy? — but he’s primarily instructed to “handle” Gail.

Wahlberg’s Chase is cool, pragmatic and enigmatic; despite the expensive suits and unruffled exterior, he always seems capable of sudden violence. Gail, fully aware of his efforts to manage her, is initially contemptuous: particularly when Chase’s first assumption about the situation proves grievously incorrect.

That gaffe notwithstanding, Gail and Chase become the Forces Of Good ... which, ironically, is where Scarpa’s script begins to lose credibility. Williams, both Plummers and even Duris look, sound and feel like their real-world counterparts; in contrast, Wahlberg struts about like a movie character, particularly when — as Scarpa’s script demands — Chase’s conscience surfaces.

This ethical epiphany leads to a climactic encounter with the elder Getty that may be a crowd-pleaser, but it rings entirely false ... as are many of the third act’s final moments. The elder Getty actually lived three years beyond this story’s events, which makes Gail’s last meeting with Hinge a total fabrication.

Scarpa also errs with respect to the modified ransom demands, as they descend from the initial $17 million. That’s just bizarre; the story wouldn’t lose any dramatic impact if such details were more accurate.

The tech credits are top-notch, as always is true of Scott’s films. Production designer Arthur Max makes the most of existing London and Roman locations, particularly with the elder Getty’s opulent estates in those two cities (Hatfield House and the Villa Wolkonsky, respectively). Not since Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane have the trappings of ostentatious wealth seemed so vulgar.

Andrew Buchan, recognized from the British TV series Broadchurch, plays John Paul Getty II — Gail’s husband, and Paul’s father — as a useless, weak-willed failure: little more than a mouth-breathing waste of space. Buchan makes an impressively strong impression during limited screen time: We completely loathe the man.

Charlie Shotwell is buoyant, cheerful and full of promise — during some flashback scenes — as 7-year-old Paul.

Daniel Pemberton’s orchestral score often serves as atmospheric emphasis, the melodies becoming sinister at unexpected moments.

Ultimately, oddly, Scott’s film is less than the sum of its various impressive parts. The contrived finale is mostly to blame, but the problem goes deeper; the tone is somehow off. Perhaps it’s a matter of Scott and Scarpa trying too hard to make their film a morality play, too frequently reminding us of aphorisms such as this one from W.C. Fields: “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”

Or, perhaps, 16-year-old Paul just doesn’t seem worth saving: likely not the reaction all concerned intended.

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