A celebrated director like Ridley Scott will be used to his films making headlines before they’re released, but he couldn’t have foreseen the reams of press coverage his melodramatic thriller about the kidnapping of J Paul Getty III attracted in the wake of allegations against its star Kevin Spacey. Neither could his crew or post-production team, so it was all hands on deck for 11th hour re-shoots, re-edits and the replacing of Spacey with Christopher Plummer.
Ironically, Plummer had been Scott’s first choice for the role of ruthless tycoon John Paul Getty (the 16-year-old Paul’s grandfather), but he was reportedly persuaded by his paymasters to go for a more bankable name. Fortuitously, though, whereas the original trailer revealed last autumn offered only glimpses of what Spacey brought to the part, Plummer proves to be far and away the best thing about a curiously detached film which, while enjoyable up to a point, is only intermittently involving and riddled with puzzling discrepancies.
Understandably, the Spacey accusations, breaking so close to the scheduled opening, will have thrown the film-makers into disarray, but it can’t be used as an excuse for some of the movie’s shortcomings.
Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer) was snatched off the streets of Rome in July 1973 and held hostage until December, while his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) frantically negotiated with his captors and fruitlessly pleaded with the family patriarch to pay the $17 million ransom – a trifling amount to a man who, in the words of one kidnapper, has “all the money in the world.” Getty senior’s refusal to stump up a penny was one of the most shocking news stories of the decade, and he generated more column inches by eventually agreeing to a radically reduced demand that didn’t go over a tax-deductible threshold.
We learn all the above over the course of the film, yet there are several other equally cinematic elements to the saga, widely reported at the time and well documented since, that Scott chooses to ignore. Perhaps some had to be sacrificed due to the hasty re-shoots, or were deemed disruptive to the dramatic pace to which the director rigidly adheres.
A timeline of Paul’s lengthy captivity would have been useful, rather than a casual aside that he’d been held “for months”, yet Scott is quick to time-stamp flashbacks (captioned on screen) that undermine his own narrative. Gail and her husband JP Getty II are shown in 1964 playing Time of the Season by the Zombies, on an album the band wouldn’t get round to making for another three years. It’s heard when the couple receives a telegram from old man Getty, a knock on the door coinciding with the line “Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” – corny, as well as anachronistic.
While remaining mindful of spoilers, there’s a more baffling example of Scott playing fast and loose with facts close to the end of the film; two hugely significant events are shown as occurring simultaneously, but a quick Google check by any viewer would reveal they were, in truth, two-and-a-half years apart. The obligatory credits disclaimer about scenes, dialogue and composite characters being “created for dramatic purposes” doesn’t really cut it.
Pity, because the sloppy historical inaccuracies, not to mention clichéd, cartoon-like and bumbling kidnappers and stilted conversational exchanges between leading players, throw needless, avoidable obstacles in the path of what should be a gripping story. Plummer’s terrific performance, understated yet chilling, certainly deserves a better film, as does the dependable work of Mark Wahlberg, here playing Getty’s ex-CIA adviser who acts as a go-between for Gail and the kidnappers, as well as the old man and his daughter-in-law.
Williams isn’t wholly convincing as Paul’s forlorn and frustrated mother, her sardonic quips and histrionic outbursts more the stuff of small-screen soap. It adds to the sense that the film might have been better suited to TV mini-series treatment, especially considering that David Scarpa’s script is based on the relevant chapters of John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich, which cast a wider net in its examination of several heirs to the Getty billions.
Such a series would feasibly shed more light on the drugs-fuelled downfall of the middle Getty man (Broadchurch’s Andrew Buchan has little to work with here), how Paul adjusted to life after his harrowing ordeal, and perhaps most importantly flesh out the details of that ordeal. As it stands, All the Money in the World is rich in missed opportunities, its director arguably as disengaged with the affair as Getty was himself in the 1970s.
All the Money in the World is released in cinemas on Friday 5th January