Ridley Scott’s latest film seems destined to become a footnote to the incredible story that marred its production. For those of you who have been on Mars for the last year, in a cave with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, this film originally starred Kevin Spacey as oil tycoon, and richest man in the history of the world, J. Paul Getty. With only a few weeks to go before the release of the film, multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Spacey.
Knowing that this scandal would completely tank the film commercially, and waste the thousands of hours of work put into the project by the huge cast and crew, not to mention the $50m budget, Ridley Scott made the unprecedented decision to recast and reshoot the part with Christopher Plummer. There are not many directors who could pull this feat off, and even fewer with the cojones to go through with it.
But what about the film? Well, it’s pretty good. A kind of hybrid thriller-family drama-biopic. The plot is concerned with the 1973 kidnapping of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer) – the grandson of J. Paul Getty – by a gang of petty criminals in Rome. Despite being the richest man in the world, Getty refuses to pay the ransom, believing it would just encourage further attacks against his family.
Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) pleads with her father-in-law to pay the kidnappers. She herself has no wealth, having foregone any claim on the Getty fortune when she divorced her husband, in order to have uncontested custody of her children. But the old man is resolute – he will not pay a cent. Instead he contracts one of his employees, Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative to bring his grandson home.
Ridley Scott once again shows off his aesthetic prowess. All the Money in the World is nothing if not visually stunning. There’s barely a frame of this film that isn’t bathed in gorgeous light as tendrils of smoke wisp across the screen. 80 years of age, and he is still mainstream cinema’s premier visualist.
However the film lacks pacing and focus. There’s a lot of place setting at the beginning, which dampens some of the impact of what is a great setup. The middle of the film is sluggish and repetitive, as squabbling gangsters hold Paul captive in increasingly worse conditions, whilst Gail and Chace sit by the phone, and Getty continues to be a bit of a bastard.
We need a character to latch onto, to live and breathe this nightmare with. Make it Gail’s story, the desperate mother burdened with a famous name, but none of the wealth, power, and influence it should carry. Or tell it from Paul’s perspective, months of brutal captivity at the hands of the mafia. How about making it the story of an ex CIA man who becomes a fixer for the richest man in the world? Or perhaps give us a character study of Getty. Use the kidnapping as the kicking off point for an in depth exploration of this cruel and fascinating man. Unfortunately by giving us a taste of all of these, Scott hasn’t really delivered on any.
So was the gamble worth it? Certainly Kevin Spacey’s presence would have been toxic at both the box office and during award season. The film was obviously intended as a prestige picture for the consideration of academy voters. The fascinating story of Spacey’s recasting made international news and certainly stoked additional interest in the film. It made $55m at the global box office, which I doubt it would have got anywhere near otherwise. As for awards, it picked up one nomination at the Oscars – best supporting actor for Christopher Plummer.
The disc comes with a brief selection of deleted scenes, and three short behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of which is a 5-minute piece about the recasting of Spacey, but it barely the scratches the surface of how significant an act this was from Scott in the post-Weinstein #MeToo landscape. The legacy of this film won’t ever be the film itself. It will be the actions of an octogenarian filmmaker who stood up for his film, and made a cold-hearted business decision that would have made J. Paul Getty proud.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus