It’s a curious thing for a film to feel as if it’s been handled with stylistic competence and boast utterly exquisite mise-en-scène – and yet fail to amount to much of anything. Based on the 1973 Italian kidnapping of Paul Getty, grandson of J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) – the richest man on the planet – All the Money in the World details the efforts of his mother (Michelle Williams) to recover him. The catch is in the title; though wealthy, the notoriously-stingy Getty refuses to pay the ransom. Despite this intriguing set-up, what should be a sizzling true-crime thriller, boasting an impressive raft of period detail, can’t help but come off a bit flat.
Much of the problem is in what the movie does with that set-up. The first two acts lack any coherent momentum, staggering between exposition, character-drama, and sluggish tension. Nominally, it’s about the kidnapping and the Getty legacy. But there’s so little momentum in the mechanics of it all: Paul is taken, demands are made, and all involved simply wait. Digressions, of which there are many, inevitably return to this status quo. Individual scenes might be excellent: an early action-beat pops and bursts in a slow-motion frenzy, while a later scene indulges in some particularly macabre horror in the heat of the Italian sun. As is frequently the case, the broader tapestry of the film works to undermine itself. The action-beat comes too early, certain characters’ non-presence making it an obvious red-herring. The latter practically jumps out of nowhere; scenes take precedence over the whole, as if its inert core can only carry it so far that this kind of energy must keep it puttering along.
what should be a sizzling true-crime thriller comes off a bit flat
Stylistically, it’s all over the place. Action and suspense are followed, even intercut, with slow character drama. It comes together in a peculiar malaise, a general sense of lurching listlessness that tries and fails to make the wheel-spinning dynamic. Those aforementioned digressions always seem so flippant. J Paul Getty is characterised as a miserly bastard, then barely developed beyond it – several scenes are dedicated to working out this exact point, over and over. Getty bargains for what is apparently his grandson, only for it to be revealed as some minor frippery. Williams’s character attempts to sell one of Getty’s gifts, only to discover that it’s a cheap factory-line model. Neither of these scenes establish anything that the audience doesn’t already know, and each plays as bizarre light-comedy against the apparent urgency of the central plot. Like much of the film, they (quite ironically) serve only themselves.
What makes all of this so quietly infuriating is acknowledging the parts that do work. The thing looks beautiful; the hues shift in vibrancy from the baking sun of the Italian countryside, to the tired greys of Getty’s estate in England. The camerawork often carries a propulsion of its own, those scenes of suspense imbued with toe-curling close-ups and jittery verité liveliness. The third act starts to pick up some of that pace missing from the first two; things actually happen as the main players begin to move. One could even half-applaud the gesturing towards some grandiose point about capitalism. At the very least, it seems to semi-articulately condemn the way that Getty’s self-interested shadow still exists in the world – though the plot’s stasis and simplicity neuter this. It works out as only some gesture, so vague and undirected, as if to confidently exclaim “Capitalism”, then fix a quizzical expression on its face.
What makes it so quietly infuriating is acknowledging that parts do work
As another part of the film’s strange in/competence binary, the performances are generally excellent. Michelle Williams does more than her best with an underwritten role, a character who lacks character beyond desperation for her son’s return. It’s a quiet part, gesturing silent nerves and wry courage through a clipped accent. Williams takes every moment to build the individual that the script lacks; it’s in the subtle quavering of that accent, and her desperate, determined squint. Likewise, Christopher Plummer easily slips into his role (recently-vacated by Kevin Spacey) with a charm that feels lived-in, realistic – an absorbing and tangible counterpoint to the ruthlessness of his character. It’s just a shame that the film ultimately has little idea what to do with him; again, the loose thematic grasp works out poorly.
It’s little fun to tear a film down, and less for one whose bright-spots are just hard enough to ignore. More bluntly, underlining the reasons why a film doesn’t work can be a challenge, particularly when they’re as obscured as they are here. It’s a film that wants to say such grand things about greed and value and dynasty. But it marries them to something with so little complexity or actual scope to the action that they can’t be explored in any meaningful depth. All the Money in the World comes off less like an indictment of what J Paul Getty represented, than a limp slap on the wrist.