What’s the going rate for a Spacey-ectomy?
Ten million dollars isn’t all the money in the world, but it’s a lot. And it’s the amount director Ridley Scott’s backers paid to remove Kevin Spacey from an already completed version of the brisk, medium-good kidnapping drama “All the Money in the World.”
In a breathless few weeks since multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against Spacey began surfacing in October, Scott and company recast the role of oil magnate J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer; reshot his scenes; re-edited the full package; and pushed the Dec. 22 release date back by three days, to Christmas. Behind the scenes as well as on screen, “All the Money in the World” is the true story of a celebrity’s sudden disappearance.
In 1973, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, the grandson (known as Paul) of the richest man in human history at the time, was walking along the Piazza Farnese in Rome when a van full of Calabrian kidnappers grabbed him and sped off. The Mafia extortionists holding the teenager captive initially set the ransom at $17 million.
But Paul’s mother, Abigail (Gail) Harris, didn’t have it. And when she approached her ex-father-in-law J. Paul, he declined. “I couldn’t be weighed down mentally with a family,” the elder Getty says earlier in the film, explaining his now-and-then attachments to alleged loved ones.
For five months, Paul was relocated and ultimately squirreled away in the mountainous countryside, while the kidnappers kept lowering their demands, and Gail performed various feats of familial negotiation and brinkmanship to get her son back, minus one ear. The story here is really Gail’s story, more so than Paul’s or J. Paul’s. The excellent Michelle Williams makes her an intriguing, cagey insider/outsider within this realm of the super-rich.
The most effective moment in “All the Money in the World” lasts all of two seconds, in the middle of an argument between Gail and J. Paul’s shadowy ex-CIA fixer, portrayed a little stiffly by Mark Wahlberg. The moment involves a telephone receiver used as a weapon. It gets the audience’s attention as well as the character’s. I wish more of the film kept you on your toes like that bit, but Scott’s production works on the level of classy, confident yarn-spinning.
The flashback-laced screenplay is by David Scarpa, based largely on John Pearson’s nonfiction account “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty.” Shooting in London, Rome and Jordan (doubling for Saudi Arabia), director Scott proves a reliable craftsman who revels, in his chilly way, in the trappings and traps of vaguely sinister hordes of wealth.
So how’s Plummer? He’s very good. He’s 30 years older than Spacey, so the makeup and visual sleight of hand now works in the opposite direction. Judging from the original trailer, with Spacey, the 1973 scenes caked the actor in old-age prosthetics. Now, in the Plummer edition, the elder Getty requires little makeup, and when the film flashes back to 1948, it’s a simple matter of Plummer’s hair and eyebrows acquiring a dark tint.
Scott has said in interviews that Plummer’s Getty is a warmer, more sympathetic portrait than Spacey’s was. It helps the film, I think. "All the Money in the World” may lack a slyly comic touch, which some of the Gettys’ machinations and excesses call for, loudly and clearly. But in addition to Williams and Plummer, there’s a lively turn from Romain Duris as the head kidnapper who develops a soft spot for the poor little rich boy, played indistinctly by Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher). The movie offers no particular point of view on this character.
So says Everett Sloane in “Citizen Kane": “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want … is to make a lot of money.” Whenever Plummer takes center stage in “All the Money in the World,” you see a remote kingdom of a man. Watching the movie is like gazing at a zoo full of exotics on a planet vaguely resembling Earth. But only vaguely.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
"All the Money in the World" -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content)
Running time: 2:12
Opens: Monday (Christmas day)