Living in Los Angeles, one can’t throw a rock without hitting a… well, a screenwriter or YouTube vlogger, yes… but also some form of cultural or artistic institution. For a city often derided by those outside it as a vapid Babylon of material excess, entirely devoid of culture, LA boasts a staggering amount of art galleries and museums— the latter of which are almost always packed, even on a weekday. Perched atop a hill overlooking the 405 freeway and the low concrete sprawl of the Westside, the elegant Getty Museum looms large over LA’s cultural legacy. Some of the world’s finest artworks and historical artifacts are housed there, inside an architecturally-dazzling ivory compound. Approximately 5000 people pass through these grounds on a daily basis, but very few of them might know the personal history of its namesake, J. Paul Getty. Known during his time as the wealthiest man in the world, Getty’s fortune has now been handily eclipsed by multi-billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates; his business achievements overshadowed by his legacy as one of the fine art world’s biggest benefactors and preservationists.
This reputation, as the 2017 film ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD shows, is something of a whitewash, scrubbing over the muck of his considerable personal flaws. Indeed, under the careful guidance of director Sir Ridley Scott, the film uses a key event in Getty’s life to reveal much more of his driving impulses than we’d might like to know. Adapted by screenwriter David Scarpa from the 1995 John Pearson novel “Painfully Rich”, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD details Getty’s response to the kidnapping of his grandson, John Paul Getty III, by Italian criminals in 1973– namely, his cold-hearted refusal to cough up a single penny for the boy’s release. Scott himself had a tangential connection to the Getty family, having directed JPG III’s son, Balthazar Getty, in his 1996 film WHITE SQUALL; considering the source novel came out around the same time as WHITE SQUALL’s production, that is likely the point where Scott first became interested in the story. The resulting film, made on a low (for Scott) $50 million budget, moves with a nimble dexterity fueled by his characteristically slick aesthetic and a pair of compelling performances. This same dexterity — a product of Scott’s unparalleled filmmaking experience — arguably saves ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD from a late-in-the-game setback that not even Scott himself could have planned for.
The story begins right away with the 1973 kidnapping, introducing Charlie Plummer as the lanky John Paul Getty III, the college-aged heir to the vast Getty fortune, sauntering nonchalantly — and alone— around the seedy streets of Rome after dark. The naïveté of his age and his elite station makes him an easy mark, and soon enough he’s whisked away in a van by a pair of abductors who hope to leverage him for a handsome sum. They send the ransom note to his grandfather, J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation to Charlie), who flat-out refuses to give in to their demands. This response illustrates how the uber-wealthy industrialist managed to accumulate all that wealth in the first place— he hoarded it all like a modern-day Scrooge McDuck. His reasoning for refusing the ransom is as patently ridiculous as it is heartlessly logical: he has several grandchildren, and if he paid the ransom for one, he’d inevitably go broke doing the same for all of them. With the boy’s father sidelined by a crippling drug addiction, it’s up to his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) to lead the charge. Deprived of the considerable resources that the Getty family name affords, Gail finds she must draw from an intense inner strength if she’s to bring her son back home safely. Thankfully, Williams the actress is more than up to the task, delivering a fierce and determined performance that rails against the calculating constrictions of her upper-crust world. She also benefits from the unexpected assistance of Mark Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chance, a thrice-divorced corporate flack for Getty whose increasing disillusionment with his employer compels him to deploy his skills as an ex-CIA operative in her favor.
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is less interested in the lurid particulars of the kidnapping than it is in the titanic struggle of wills between Gail and Plummer’s Getty. Plummer is pitch-perfect as the ruthless capitalist, so untouchable wealthy that he eagerly indulges himself in delusions of grandeur (in one of the film’s many flashback sequences, he matter-of-factly informs his young grandson that he’s a Roman emperor reincarnated). Arguably the last living embodiment of the Old Money robber barons, Getty can only bring himself to spend his fortune on fine art, prizing oil on canvas over his own flesh and blood. Plummer’s performance would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor— a feat made all the more remarkable considering he shot his scenes in only two weeks after principal photography had wrapped (and a mere month or two before its release). Plummer had been Scott’s first choice for the role, but was initially unavailable. Kevin Spacey was subsequently cast and performed the role under pounds of makeup, only to find himself embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal brought about by the rise of the #MeToo movement. Like so many powerful, once-untouchable men, Spacey was swiftly banished from Hollywood. For ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, this timing was understandably uncomfortable— due to arrive in theaters only a few short weeks after the news hit, the film risked utter catastrophe if it were to forge ahead with its disgraced star. Indeed, it was so late in the game that Spacey was still being prominently featured as Getty in the initial marketing campaign. Thus, Scott made a bold decision that only someone of his logistical brilliance and considerable experience could make: he would call his cast back to set at a cost of $10 million, reshooting all of Spacey’s scenes with the now-available Plummer, and deliver the finished film in time to meet its original release date. Most other filmmakers would simply seek a delayed release, but Scott has never been one to walk away from an intimidating logistical challenge. Judging by Plummer’s several awards-season nods, Scott’s high-stakes gambit ultimately paid off, thus cementing his legacy as a master filmmaker capable of marshaling staggering, impossible forces to realize his vision.
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD quickly distinguishes itself as one of the more visually-styled efforts in Scott’s filmography— which, understandably, is no easy feat. Shooting on a fleet of digital Arri Alexa cameras in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Scott and returning cinematographer Dariusz Wolski infuse the high-contrast visuals with a striking orange & green color palette. Complementary blue hues lend a sickly, cold pallor to scenes set in America (most prominently in and around Getty’s sprawling estate), while still other scenes — like the opening kidnapping sequence — bloom into color from a monochromatic starting point. Indeed, the overall image is so conspicuously graded that one could imagine the filmmakers just slapped an Instagram filter over the damn thing and called it a day. The camerawork retains Scott’s characteristic blend of classical and handheld photography, complementing the dimension provided by signature atmospherics like lens flares, dust, snow, and silhouettes.
Beyond Wolski, Scott’s usual group of core collaborators are absent. The exception is production designer Arthur Max, who returns after sitting out ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) and subsequently provides ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD’s immersive realization of period & place. The evocative environments on display throughout— be it bustling 70’s-era Rome, the buzzing Italian countryside, or even the Getty corporation headquarters in San Francisco — resonate as the film’s strongest aspect. Scott leverages his unique talent for rendering the texture and color of urban life to throw his audience headlong into these settings. The sprawling story also affords him the opportunity to indulge in other personal and artistic fascinations, like his affection for the Middle East and its distinct culture. These are not detailed explorations so much as they are fleeting references. For instance, Scott lifts an establishing aerial shot from BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001) to set up a scene occurring (but not shot) in Morocco (1). A brief flashback depicting Getty disembarking a train in the desert and meeting a caravan of Saudi oil businessmen strongly recalls the imagery of David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA— a cornerstone influence of Scott’s artistry that’s been repeatedly referenced throughout his filmography.
As of this writing, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD constitutes Scott’s most recently-released work. Generally-positive reviews didn’t quite translate to a box office windfall, with a paltry $7 million domestic profit dashing the filmmakers’ hopes that the film’s title would prove prophetic for its own reception. Not even the headline-grabbing developments of Spacey’s sacking or Scott’s last-minute reshoot push was enough to pull a substantial audience in. The reshoots themselves generated some controversy, with trade journals exposing a massive pay disparity between Wahlberg and Williams’ fees. This served to further dampen the audience’s already-lethargic enthusiasm for the picture— especially considering its release at the heights of the #TimesUp movement. Wahlberg would ultimately donate his outsized payday to the movement’s organizing body in a bid to make things right, but ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD performed underwhelmingly nonetheless.
Naturally, Scott is not one to dwell on his failures or disappointments; if that were the case, he’d have been done decades ago. Indeed, his slate of upcoming projects is larger than ever. He’s currently in production on a new television series titled RAISED BY WOLVES, the first two episodes of which he’s also directing. He’s also attached to direct no less than three features— QUEEN & COUNTRY, BATTLE OF BRITAIN, and the long-gestating sequel to GLADIATOR. He’s also likely tinkering away with the next installment in his ALIEN/PROMETHEUS prequels. Assuming he actually follows through on this ambitious slate, the man has enough work to keep him occupied until his mid-to-late 80’s— and even then, he shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down. His artistic reputation as a consummate craftsman and an impeccable visual stylist of the highest order propels a continuing desire to work; to create. At the risk of sounding morbid, it’s a fairly safe bet that, whatever his final feature will be, his collaborators and partners will have to finish it for him. To me, this is somewhat of a beautiful thing: when (or if) the unstoppable filmmaking machine that is Sir Ridley Scott finally gives out, he will be surrounded by friends and family, doing the thing he loves to do more than anything (and likely chomping on a fat cigar to boot). One can see Scott greeting his inevitable end not with awe or fear, but with an exasperated sigh of annoyance; the man keeps himself so busy that there’s simply no time to die. Not when there’s still so many worlds left to explore.
Written by: David Scarpa
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Bradley Thomas, Kevin J Walsh, Chris Clark, Quentin Curtis, Dan Friedrich
Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Claire Simpson
Music by: Daniel Pemberton
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