In the summer of 1973, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) received a phone call informing her that her 16-year-old son John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, "The Dinner," no relation to Christopher) had been kidnapped and was being held for $17 million in ransom. Her former father-in-law, billionaire John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), refused to pay it despite having "All the Money in the World."
Director Ridley Scott ("The Martian") made headlines with his decision to replace disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, originally cast as the billionaire oilman, with his original choice, the more age appropriate Christopher Plummer. He's pulled off the seemingly impossible, scheduling Thanksgiving time reshoots and still making his Christmas release date with a seamless looking film. But that drama should not overshadow the merits of his movie, a family psychological drama, biopic and thriller deftly pulled together by David Scarpa (2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") based on John Pearson's book.
The film opens with the infamous kidnapping in a scene that is at once an homage to "La Dolce Vita" and a swift characterization of the young Getty III, a long-haired stylishly dressed and confident youth who assures the prostitutes who wish to mother him that he's capable of taking care of himself. A minute later, he'd just love to have his mother by his side.
After assuring the kidnappers that she doesn't have any money, Gail grits her teeth and makes her way to her former father-in-law's, a flashback to San Francisco in the 60's informing of her prior happy family life when his father's complete disinterest was only beginning to show its toll on John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan, TV's 'Broadchurch'). It is he who fills us in on his father's genius as we see the younger version's far-sighted approach to extracting Saudi Arabia's oil, then building the first super tanker to contain it. Encouraged by Gail to write to his father, the family is overjoyed to be invited to Rome where Getty II is informed he'll become a VP in an industry he knows nothing about to 'sink or swim.' A bond is formed between Getty and his grandson when the young man takes an interest in his art (and is given an ancient Egyptian figure Getty values at $1.2 million), answers his correspondence and hears grandpa's belief that he is the reincarnation of Roman Emperor Hadrian. Despite that extravagant gift, we also learn that Getty was so miserly, he washed his own underwear in hotel bathrooms. When her husband quickly sunk into debauched addiction, Gail smartly used the old man's cheapness by refusing alimony in divorce proceedings to gain custody of her children.
As the chicly suited Gail waits for an audience, Getty conspires with his security and business manager Fletcher Chase (the oddly cast Mark Wahlberg), who is tasked with helping Gail secure the release of his grandson. At her apartment, they watch as the old man tells press he won't spend a penny, arguing that if he paid the ransom, more grandchildren would be snatched. Chase's initial investigation leads to the credible theory that Getty III planned the kidnapping himself, something grandpa is all too ready to believe. But when Getty III, being held in the Calabrian countryside, uses his wits to escape and gets a call through to Gail, its termination reveals an ugly truth - his frustrated kidnappers have sold him to a far more dangerous 'investor,' Mammoliti (Marco Leonardi, "Black Souls").
Scott weaves back and forth in time to flesh out the family history which informs the summer of '73 and one comes away aghast at the soul curdling effect of vast wealth and full of admiration for the wily strength of Gail Harris. The tale is utter madness, including a climax where the victim's release puts him in the most danger, even after the horrific experience of brutal mutilation. The chameleon-like Williams slips into the role of a well-bred young woman capable of moving in high society yet preferring independence, her adopted accent like Katherine Kepburn's without the characteristic vocal inflections. Her interactions with Plummer are deliciously caustic. As her nemesis, Plummer is a bundle of contradictions with a shocking cruel streak (Wahlberg's best scene is his reaction to one of Getty's late-breaking ploys). He's like 'The Simpsons'' Mr. Burns come to life, sentiment and empathy present, but controlled by self interest. French actor Romain Duris ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped") plays Cinquant, one of the original kidnappers who forms a bond with the victim, acting as a buffer between Gail and Mammoliti.
Dariusz Wolski ("The Martian") gives the film the look of its time, San Francisco cooly corporate, Getty's world shrouded in darkness, his grandson's imprisonment in autumnal, tumble down countryside. The soundtrack further fleshes out time and place, the Rolling Stones' 'Wild Horses' the perfect segue to Morocco, composer David Pemberton's ("The Counselor") score subtly yet effectively jarring. Costume designer Janty Yates ("Gladiator") dresses Gail in Jackie-O chic, her son boho style.
Scott's film tapers off a bit at the end, Gail and Fletcher's parting anticlimactic after all they've gone through together. But his last image of Getty speaks volumes.
Robin did not see this film.
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