Why this film: Admittedly, we’re right out of the gate with breaking the no-Oscar-nomination rule with the film that got Plummer nominated in the first place. Aside from being an act of completism, a cursory glance through Plummer’s Wikipedia page makes it look like his career is largely composed of grand but disposable biopics, albeit with some richly rewarding exceptions. The Insider would probably have gotten this slot had I seen All the Money in the Worldin theaters, which I avoided as a protest vote against a possible Plummer nomination. That I failed to see it before the Oscars speaks more to its digital release date than my desire not to get it out of the way once it was on the required reading list.
The Film: I feel a little bad starting this project off with such a wholly negative review, especially since it’s a disaster I willingly walked into. Then again, bemoaning cruelty towards an A-list kidnapping melodrama that barely made its budget back and scored an Oscar nomination feels even less deserving than the nomination it got. Maybe I am beating a freshly dead horse, but All the Money in the World creates such an overwhelming sense of its own importance that it’s hard to feel too bad when such a project winds up having very little to say and having accomplished even less. It’s not as if reviews were kind even before it got the small, significant awards heat that it did, or as if those nominations were generously received in the slightest. Barely making its budget back suggests that not many moviegoers were particularly impressed either, even after the announcement of reshoots to switch in Christopher Plummer in the face of Kevin Spacey being named a sexual predator by Anthony Rapp. For this Ridley Scott and his team deserve ample credit, not just on moral grounds but on filmmaking ones; there’s no sign of the obvious labor it must’ve taken to reshoot all these scenes so quickly. Everybody feels completely on the same wavelength, and though I believe that the uniting wavelength is mostly a pretty disastrous one, it’s still an admirable act of attempting to salvage one’s film by going to extraordinary measures.
Maybe All the Money in the World wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the mise-en-scene hadn’t relentlessly emphasized the scale and importance of its events the entire time it was propping itself in front of me. Few choices play specifically as incoherent – the first quarter or so occasionally lapses into black and white cinematography seemingly at random – but there’s a real logic to making the camera so rough following Paul from handler to handler. Still, too much focus on Chace the Getty family emphasizes the bigness of the spaces they inhabit, how ornate they and the things in those spaces are. Getty Sr. pontificates about his delineations between priceless and other forms of arbitrating the value of ancient objects, and he seems smaller than the vast army of Things curated in his living room. The last, richest, and most vicious of Paul Getty’s kidnappers, whose face bears a passing resemblance to Getty Sr., is framed much the same way in relation to his army of sweatshop workers, middle-aged women sewing knockoff bags in a warehouse while he goes off to tend to the young boy he’s just purchased. Lighting choices focus on high contrast blacks and whites, inky golds and blacks. The culminating effect of so many of cinematographer Darius Wolski’s ostentatious visual choices is that the film keeps abstracting itself when it should be grounding such a fundamentally bizarre story. The slow pacing surely indicates that this is the point, to blow up the story to such gargantuan levels that its truths are similarly boldfaced, and if it’s commendable for a dramatization of a months-long kidnapping to never play the whole thing luridly, it’s unforgivable that it can bill itself as a thriller and be this resoundingly dull.
Unwinding at a deliberate pace as the script must portray a frequently developing story that similarly doesn’t go anywhere for long stretches of time, one wonders if the intent was to suggest that specific kind of purgatory between mother and son instead of presenting itself as such a bloated mass. It’s not as if Scott and his tech teams are letting down a remotely worthwhile script, but it’s dismaying that they’re all so inspired by the broad archetypes that the writing so frequently indulges in. The actors seem especially hemmed in by this, though no one seems interested in exploring or filling out the script’s feigns towards contradictions either. Hints that Gail might be a better heir to the family fortune that she’s given credit for, and that Getty’s buying and collecting are motivated by a sadder need to prove himself aren’t picked up to the extent that they might’ve. If Plummer at least offers a consistent energy to the film, contributing the right atmosphere of smug, rich bastard who may or may not love his family more than his money, – though I wouldn’t call it a good or even consistent characterization – Williams is neither able to dramatize the Gail we’re told about in the script or create her own version of this woman. The character plays in the tradition of maternal melodrama heroines, selfless and bitter and far above worldly possessions like cash when her boy is missing, but she’s not able to project any interiority or rise above the cliches integrated into the part. Like everyone else, she’s clearly made a lot of choices about who her character is, but none of them make sense on screen. Wahlberg is such a non-entity in the central role of the P.I. on retainer to find the boy that writing about him at all feels pretty generous. Charlie Plummer contributes some unexpectedly kind grace notes in his corner of the film, playing a decent kid in way over his head with money even before he’s kidnapped, refusing to play Paul as a proto Draco Malfoy, while Romain Duris is unexpectedly convincing as a kidnapper that takes a real shine to Paul, turning Cinquanta into a kind of protector as the men who’re holding the boy grow less patient and more bloodthirsty. Of all Paul’s guardians, theirs becomes the most tangible relationship, but an accusation made months into the hostage situation that Cinquanta has stuck his neck out more than any other Getty rings with a kernel of truth undermined by the little screentime their relationship actually has to develop.
The murkiness of this statement emblematizes another of the film’s issues, as the direction is so relentlessly keyed-up that the turns in this bizarre story play as implausible. A mid-film juncture where Paul is suspecting to be in on the whole kidnapping to wheedle cash from his old man, only for this already stupid notion to be abandoned after a corpse is found that’s immediately proven to not be the boy’s once Gail and Chace see it, and it just sits there instead of generating any tension or perverse reality. There’s some energy in the filmmaking in scenes of real danger and violence, not just the raid on the first building Paul is kept at but the removal and mailed discovery of one of the boy’s boy parts, and the stentorian attitude of this last crime lord as he insists that Paul must be fed lots of meat to get his strength back after inquiring about the boy’s obedience. Weirdly, the actual retrieval of the boy never gets that kind of charge, perhaps because the cross-cutting between so many parties running around alleyways trying to catch him first prioritizes Getty Sr. at home having a stroke over all of these people. Ending the film with Gail looking at a black marble bust of the old man as the music swells before the credits say his art can be found in a museum named in his honor is as clear an indication of who we’re supposed to walk out of the theater thinking about, more so than the actual kidnapping victim or the people who showed a more active interest in his return. Paul’s place as a McGuffin seems solidified in these last scenes, as he wordlessly hovers around his mother as the rest of the film devotes itself to what will become of Getty Sr.’s vast fortune and art galleries rather than the criminal investigation into the kidnappers, or how Paul is, or a single scene of the Getty’s at home and celebrating his return. What do you make of priorities like that?
Watching All the Money in the World, I couldn’t help but think about how it stacked up against The Black Dahlia’s own, even more fictionalized take on a notorious criminal investigation. That movie found a way to key into a sensationalized story, embracing any number of chintzy period affects and swerving into different kinds of pulp without ever being reductive to its real-life case or sacrificing whatever ineffable quality that made the whole thing work even when parts of it didn’t. It pulled off what could’ve been a dubious fictionalization of one of America’s most famous murders while leaving plenty of room for its best artists to put real edges on their material in spite of some dangerous acts of miscasting, offering much more potent critiques on the comically sad delusions of the rich and honoring a victim who never received any real justice. All the Money in the World shares the sin of poorly chosen leads, but where Dahlia’s core proved to be ravenously sad and unsatisfied with the world, All the Money in the World just plays as endlessly self-important, convinced it’s telling a real story while acting as though putting it up on the screen for us is in itself an act of relaying what it wants to say about money and what it does to the people who have far too much of it, even the ones who say they don’t want it. Contradictions lay there on the screen, begging anyone to pick them up as its tale of how a rich man endless complicates a hostage situation everyone counted on running smoothly and ending quickly is played as straight and as dull as possible. Fargo comes to mind too, tremendously acted and astonishingly agile with its tone, swerving from farcical to deadly serious without betraying its stakes. But All the Money in the World simply lumbers on, convinced of the profound meaning behind its cliches, too smugly satisfied with where they take it for me to not to sit there and squirm waiting for something, anything to happen.