Friday 12 January 2018

Hostages of fortune: "All the Money in the World"

All the Money in the World has a place waiting for it in the history books as a technical feat: as has been widely reported, once news broke of the scandal enveloping Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott took the decision to recast the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer and reshoot key scenes mere weeks before the film's original holiday release date. The rationale was equal parts ethical and financial: Spacey had become a toxic asset that needed offloading, if the finished feature stood any chance of recouping its budget in the current climate. (In this respect, the director has proven a far cannier operator than, say, Louis CK, whose self-financed feature I Love You, Daddy had its release scrapped after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour were made against him.) Scott has long seemed like Hollywood's ideal of a director-businessman, one who talks the same turkey as the studios' corporate paymasters, brings every project in on budget and on time, and once made an entire romcom - 2006's A Good Year - dependent on the price of reserve wine. Even Scott's most populist endeavours, the recent Alien bolt-ons, have sometimes appeared like cautionary tales recounted by a John Harvey-Jones-like troubleshooter in the pages of a health-and-safety manual: how not to run an interstellar mining company. 

Handed a script by David Scarpa about arguably the 20th century's most successful businessman, and the fraught negotiations that broke out after the kidnap of Getty's teenage grandson Paul in Rome in 1973, Scott presumably leapt to sign on - and he likewise didn't hesitate to take decisive action once the full extent of the Spacey situation became apparent. (Every creative decision here seems informed by the question "What would Getty do?") Yet the curious thing about All the Money in the World is that the reshoot legend suggests an urgency about this production that is conspicuously lacking from the finished film. That leaden Scarpa script is the chief culprit. After a scene-setting prologue that sees Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation) scooped up off the street by a VW van's worth of bedraggled Italian ne'er-do-wells, the clock doesn't start ticking as start ticking backwards. A full half-hour of this 133-minute picture is set aside to detailing exactly how Getty senior made his billions, where the kid came from, and his bohemian childhood, before Scott can circle back around to address the finer points of his central stand-off. (For the uninitiated: the kidnappers demanded $17m for the kid's safe return, but Getty senior, wary of opening himself up to further extortion attempts, refused to cough up a pretty penny.)

In the meantime, Scott intends us penniless proles to marvel at Getty's screen-filling skyscrapers ("It must have eighty storeys!," gasps the wide-eyed younger Paul), or an anecdote about an artefact that cost the billionaire $11 at a Grecian market stall but would now be worth a cool million at auction, or the old-money sweep of Getty's English country estate, with its well-stocked armoury and glamorous flame-haired fillies shooting skeet for sport over Bloody Marys out back. "I like things," Plummer's Getty muses to his go-to negotiator Fletcher Chace (a composite or invention, played in the loosest sense of the term by Mark Wahlberg). "Paintings, statues... because they're exactly what they appear to be. They never change, and they never disappoint." People, not so much: you wonder the extent to which Scott himself agrees. What we as viewers need amid this moneyed milieu are flesh-and-blood figures, someone we feel we can cling to, or who might just offset all the cold hard cash being paraded before us; what we witness instead are some deeply strange casting and performance choices.

To address the pressing issue first, Plummer slips into his scenes as to the manor born. The actor's seniority and patrician bearing makes him a far better fit for this Getty than you can ever imagine the Voldemort-like Spacey-in-latex of the film's early trailers being; there is, perhaps, an even more fascinating movie going on behind the kidnapping, tailing this desiccated penny-pincher as he stumbles around his darkened Home Counties Xanadu, clutching masterpieces to a hollow chest while mummifying himself in ticker tape. Alas, Scott and Scarpa's focus lies elsewhere. As the boy's mother Abigail, Michelle Williams tests a posh British accent that generates erratic line readings and undermines her flickers of maternal warmth, while the role of Getty's head tactician sorely demanded someone whose ability to suggest intelligence extended beyond raiding the costume truck for thick-rimmed glasses. Deprived of his usual muscle scenes, Wahlberg stands around looking bemused in period waistcoats; he may have received substantially more for doing this than his female co-star, but you wouldn't trust this guy to negotiate a pelican crossing on his own. (Best in show is Romain Duris as the kidnappers' pointman, forging an unexpected bond with his punk charge - though it still seems perverse to cast a Frenchman as an Italian.)

Scott gives us time - practically all the time in the world - to notice the film's quirks and foibles. The pulpy material, tectonic collision of social strata, and Italian setting cry out for a filmmaker working in the tradition of Francesco Rosi or any of the other great European directors who turned towards the thriller genre in the 1970s, someone prepared to shake this story by its ankles to see what truths might fall out of its pockets; instead, it's passed all too smoothly into the hands of old man Ridley, more producer than director nowadays, who potters along in second gear, ensuring every last Wiki-sourced plot point and change of location has been carefully accounted for. The results retain that mild, minor fascination that comes from stumbling onto a well-turned afternoon TV movie where recognisable faces play well-to-do people - I suspect it'll be the 2017-18 awards contender most often encountered for the first time on a long-haul flight (business class, natch) - but its achievements are almost entirely logistical: Scott has converted intriguing facts into functional sequences, and then, amid a last-minute crisis, ensured the completed product was delivered to his bosses on deadline and without undue expenditure. You can admire the professionalism, by all means, but it's not art, and it only just counts as entertainment.

All the Money in the World is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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