Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World made headlines last autumn—even while the theatrical trailer played around the world—when the movie was reshot to replace disgraced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the central role of J. Paul Getty. It was an extreme move. The movie, a period piece surrounding the kidnapping of Paul, Getty’s teenaged grandson, was obviously a blockbuster on a huge scale. Scenes featuring Spacey had been shot in a desert, in extravagant houses, and other expensive-to-replicate scenarios. Central, high-tension scenes had to be reshot with the other leads working opposite an entirely new actor and on a very tight schedule. But they did it. And the movie came out on time.
All the Money in the World is a patch job that doesn’t feel like one at all. In my opinion it is a movie well worth saving from what would certainly have been a box office bomb. Sure, the movie’s plot at face value doesn’t seem to be anything more than a crime thriller. A young man, Paul, is kidnapped, and his mother, Abigail Harris, spends months trying to pry the ransom money from the miserly hands of her ex-father-in-law. But the performances handed in by leads Michelle Williams as Harris, Mark Wahlberg as the ex-CIA fixer at her side, Romain Duris as one of the kidnappers, Christopher Plummer as Getty, and Charlie Plummer as Paul turn the movie into something extraordinary. It’s the kind of movie where there is action, suspense, and car chases, but also a movie in which the expressive working of Williams’ neck muscles tells you more about the characters’ interaction than the excellent dialogue. Throughout the whole of the film, Williams maintains a sterling Transatlantic accent and a force of presence that the whole movie could rest on. But among the stunning cinematography, the beautifully framed characterization, and the simple scope of time that the film encompassed, it’s hard to say where its strongest suit lies.
Among its many strengths is its ability to turn what would otherwise be a cartoonishly evil character, in the form of Getty, into a compelling and strange antagonist. One can imagine all too easily Kevin Spacey settling down as Getty to do a none-too-fresh rendition of Frank Underwood, with a different accent. I caught the shadows of that performance: in the musing, monologuing dialogue that Spacey had originally been hired to work with, in the isolation of the character and his imperative demand for power. Plummer’s Getty, though, makes that performance feel like a potential and well-averted simplification.
The narrative, however, does fall prey to simplification. It—like many other biopics and historical movies—streamlines actual events and transforms or invents characters. Walberg’s ex-CIA fixer, for example, didn’t exist in real life, but his character feels necessary for the narrative as Scott frames it, serving as an intermediary between Getty’s cold, calculating world of money and Harris’s realm of emotion and devout motherhood. He’s a far more functional and a far less disruptive invention than, say, the white savior figure conjured out of the air as a lead in Hidden Figures.
This week, we learned of some more drama surrounding the All the Money. Scott had said in an interview with USA Today back in December that the reshoot was only possible because “everyone did it for nothing.” Well, that wasn’t exactly true. As Scott said, “[T]hey all came in free. Christopher had to get paid. But Michelle, no. Me, no,” before hastily adding that the crew were, of course, paid. However, Williams and Wahlberg, who are represented by the same agency, walked away with very different paychecks. This week, USA Today reported that Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million. Williams, $80 a day, totaling $1,000—far from all the money in the world. This wasn’t the most welcome news, days after Golden Globes where many stars wore black in protest over sexism and harassment in the film and other industries. Of the three top-billed leads, the only one who went virtually unpaid on the reshoot was its only top-billed woman. It’s a small comfort that at least the director walked away from the reshoot without a big paycheck too.
Despite the drama surrounding the making of this movie, it’s definitely one to see in theaters, with all the glamor of its cinematography and the tension of its plot experienced uninterrupted and on a grand scale. The finished product should certainly outshine its backstage drama.