There’s undoubtedly an exciting movie to be made about how oil tycoon J. Paul Getty—once the richest man in the world—handled the kidnapping of his 16-year-old grandson, Paul, in 1973. Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World is not quite that movie, though not for a lack of opportunity. It’s an incredibly gritty story: Paul’s months-long captivity, spent tied up in huts across southern Italy; the $17 million ransom, which Getty publicly refused to pay, lest all of his grandchildren be kidnapped for huge ransoms; and Paul’s amputated ear, recognizable to his mother thanks to its freckles, which had been cut off by his captors and sent in a plastic bag to a newspaper in Rome. At the center of it all sits Paul’s titanic grandfather, the billionaire known as Old John, who ought to have been the story’s hero, but instead, from the outside, comes off a bit more like one of its villains.
As history, it’s a tragic circus. As the stuff of a movie, it’s honestly pretty rich. J. Paul Getty’s skewed moral compass, overdetermined by his financial hardlining, is practically science fiction—that is, unless you’re a billionaire. There’s a phrase we hear at least three times in the movie: “ordinary people”—as in, the opposite of Getty. In real life, Getty was initially willing to put up only $2.2 million of the ransom, and this was after months of negotiating the ransom down to $2.9 million, none of which happened in time to save poor Paul’s ear. To say this predicament ought to lend itself to a taut, riveting thriller, nevermind the opportunity for it to ascend to something more ambitious, is an understatement.
But taut and thrilling are precisely what Scott’s limp yet unsurprisingly Golden Globe–nominated movie fails to be. All the Money in the World, which stars Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, and Michelle Williams, has all the makings of a complicated study of moral compromises people with money apparently have to make in times of hardship, such as: Do I step in before another of my grandson’s severed body parts arrives in the mail, or do I wait it out a while and shoot some skeet in my backyard in case these kidnappers aren’t really playing hardball? A tough choice! This is a movie about the guy who wrote the book on being rich—literally, the book is called How to Be Rich. And as Plummer, who plays Getty, notes early on, that’s how to be rich, not how to get rich. Any idiot, he says, can get rich. Just look at the guys who kidnapped a billionaire’s grandkid.
There’s a good story here, starting with the kidnapping of Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) one night along the Piazza Farnese, in Rome, and winding through the efforts of his mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), to convince her father-in-law to cut the kidnappers a $17 million check. Instead of doing that, Old John sends an ex-CIA man, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to Rome to investigate and, if necessary, negotiate, with the bottom line being: Don’t spend more of my money than is absolutely necessary. It’s a tense endeavor, or rather, it should be. But from the start, All the Money gets a little lost in its docudrama artifice, with Paul’s meaningless narration guiding us through a plot that shoots laboriously back and forth from the austerity of Getty’s gloomy Tudor-era manor, Sutton Place, in Surrey, England, to the warmth of Rome and southern Italy. Even the kidnappers seem a little friendly—or maybe they just seem underprepared. One of them, a guy named Cinquanta (Romain Duris), takes a liking to Paul, enough so that when Paul accidentally sees Cinquanta’s face—grounds for the kid getting murdered—they instead opt to keep it their little secret. Relationships like this, or the paternally suggestive ties between Getty and Fletcher, are more interesting and odder than the movie gives them room to be.
It takes a certain kind of director to make a movie like this, one who can stick the landing where the script’s subtler shades are concerned while still barrelling ahead with the swift ease of a thriller. The notoriously smart, efficient Scott is often enough that director. But everything interesting about All the Money gets lost in the incongruously hammy acting and a fitfully convoluted script, all of which gets served at the behest of a filmmaker who sometimes seems to be asleep at the wheel. It’s a little strange. Scott isn’t exactly a hyper-consistent auteur, but usually he’s a little more precise, a little more thrilling at the level of the individual scene, than this movie displays. The staging, the pace, the way he winds his characters through their constant negotiations and pushes them into predictable close-ups and the like, all feels dishearteningly stale. A movie about an oil tycoon of course lends itself to schmaltzy scene chewing, and down-to-the-wire thrillers are always a good chance for an editor to flex. That’s all here—I mean, a kid’s ear gets cut off, so the movie is at least worth its weight in shitty popcorn. But it’s as if the movie strives to be watchable at the expense of taking the chance to be memorable.
The inattention of Ridley Scott is of course not the story we’ll be telling about this movie. If you walk out discussing anything, it’ll likely be the question of how Plummer, who shot his role in just nine days a little over a month ago, pulled it off—and how Scott made that happen. Plummer, as is by now well known, appears as a replacement for Kevin Spacey, whom Scott swiftly moved to replace in light of a series of allegations of sexual misconduct made against the actor beginning in October, after principal photography on the film had already concluded. It’s impossible to watch All the Money in the World without studying for the seams, which are for the most part effectively smoothed-over: The movie is universally flat.
Plummer, who’s quite good, hardly seems to be in more than 20 minutes of the movie, but his character looms large over it like an immovably amoral force, an avatar of the easy solution—a $17 million check—that Gail and the others can never actually take. It was enough to earn him a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor, and Scott and Williams beside him for director and leading actress, respectively. If it were being released under normal circumstances, though, what would there be to say, really? Another season, another Ridley Scott movie. What’s impressive is that Scott rescued it on such short notice. Equally impressive is that we’ve so far resisted opening the floodgates to cynical reads on his reasons for doing so. But oil tycoons are hardly the only businessmen with financial bottom lines—just ask Ridley. “[A]s the director,” Scott recently told Entertainment Weekly, “your one priority is to put bums on seats and you better entertain. So any form of publicity is useful. Need I go further?” He needn’t.