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All the Money in the World strands an interesting story within a middling movie

Ridley Scott swapped in Christopher Plummer for Kevin Spacey at the last minute, but it doesn’t fix what ails this film.

Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World.
TriStar Pictures

The best thing about All the Money in the World is Christopher Plummer, who plays J. Paul Getty, the American industrialist who was added to the Guinness Book of Records in 1966 for being the world’s richest private citizen.

That fact is surprising, not because Plummer isn’t a great actor, but because he wasn’t part of the film until early November. The film was shot with Kevin Spacey in the role, buried under makeup and prosthetics — Spacey is 58 to Plummer’s 88 — but after sexual assault allegations against Spacey came to light, director Ridley Scott made an eleven-and-three-quarters-hour decision to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer in the role.

That decision worked out to his advantage, and the film’s — both because Plummer is a natural for this kind of role, and because it lent the film a little publicity. And that’s something it will need, because All the Money in the World doesn’t quite have the gumption to live up to its all-star pedigree.

The true story behind All the Money in the World is about a massively wealthy man and his kidnapped grandson

All the Money in the World is the true story of Getty, a famously stingy gazillionaire, and his determined ex-daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who lock horns when the 16-year-old heir Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) is kidnapped and held for ransom.

While the tale is interesting, All the Money in the World never quite makes clear why we should care about watching it. The first chunk of the movie is devoted to showing how Getty, who had been distant and mostly absent during the childhood of his son J. Paul II (Andrew Buchan), becomes reconnected with his son, his son’s wife Gail, and his grandchildren, including young Paul. He offers J. Paul II a job, and the family’s lives change.

Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World.
TriStar Pictures

But J. Paul II and Gail’s marriage splits up, and Gail moves away from her dissolute ex-husband, retaining only custody of the children and child support. Then Paul is kidnapped, held for $17 million ransom somewhere in Italy, and the elder Getty won’t pay a cent of it.

The rest of the movie is devoted to Gail’s efforts to get Paul back, aided by Getty’s personal dealmaker Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). They slowly bargain down the ransom demands of Paul’s captors while trying to locate him and convince Getty to pay the ransom. Meanwhile, Paul and one of his captors (Romain Duris) form a kind of bond, though that doesn’t keep Paul from trying to find a way out.

It’s an interesting story, and at the time it made for sensational news. But an interesting story alone isn’t enough to make for an engrossing movie — and unfortunately, All the Money never quite finds its way toward a compelling point.

Its premise is interesting, but All the Money in the World fails to coalesce as a story

All the Money in the World works best when it spends time with the elder Getty who, like plenty of men of his type, harbors quirks that come across as either kind of endearing or kind of disturbing. He’s not quite the Howard Hughes type — not a germaphobe or a recluse or a predator — but he’s super-focused on money, and to him everything is transactional except family, sort of. He purchases art extravagantly, prolifically, at the drop of a hat, and protects it with alarms; he tells his young grandson as they stroll some ruins in Rome that he’s pretty sure he is the Emperor Hadrian reincarnated.

The nonchalance with which Plummer tosses off the lines in these scenes is what makes them work, making Getty come off unpredictable and chilling. He seems to prove this in his refusal to pay the money that will retrieve his grandson, insisting he doesn’t have any money to spare while also being the foremost collector of art in the world. (All of that art forms the cornerstone of the marvelous Getty collections in Los Angeles.)

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World
Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World
TriStar Pictures

But the film spends more time with Gail and Fletcher as they try to rescue Paul, and this is a disservice to the narrative. As a character study of an old, wealthy, confusing man, All the Money in the World might have worked. As a kidnapping drama, it’s less exciting, even with some car and foot-chases, along with a uniquely Ridley Scott addition of a truly horrifying scene (foreshadowed on the movie’s poster) in which an ear is cut off, on screen, in excruciating detail. Gail is forced to spend a lot of time demanding that her former father-in-law have a conscience, and her conversations with Fletcher (a role in which Wahlberg feels bafflingly miscast) seem repetitive.

And indeed, it turns out they were spinning their wheels trying to get Paul back, so this repetition is not inaccurate. But then why does it, along with Paul’s attempts to escape, form the basis of the drama? None of those parts of the story are interesting enough to sustain the movie on their own, and even with solid performances from Williams and Charlie Plummer, the tension is cut by repeatedly moving between story lines.

The end result is that I left All the Money in the World wondering why this was a movie at all. It’s a series of events that happened, to be sure. And Getty is an important and interesting figure from the middle of the 20th century. But those facts don’t make for a good movie. I wasn’t a huge fan of last year’s Rules Don’t Apply, which Warren Beatty directed and in which he starred as eccentric rich guy Howard Hughes, but at least that film had both a sense of humor about itself and a point to make, about how the extremely wealthy are often permitted to live outside the rules under which we normal people have to abide.

All the Money in the World makes a few gestures in that direction, but it’s not particularly interesting to suggest, as this film does, that wealthy people sometimes structure their wealth in ways that both help them pay less in taxes and cause them to make some weird life choices, and that they think they can buy and sell people. That feels like something we know, and this movie doesn’t have anything new to add. Fletcher, as Getty’s employee, doesn’t add anything to that idea. And Gail, though a strong foil for Getty as a devoted mother, is too one-note to add anything to the conversation, either.

All the Money in the World doesn’t quite function as a biopic, a historical story of interest, or the taut drama it wants to be. The pieces are all there, but ultimately the film, and Christopher Plummer’s place in it, proves that even a strange, compelling character at the center can’t provide enough gravitational pull to make a story come together.

All the Money in the World opens in theaters on December 25.