It’s not usually great news for a movie when what’s happening behind the scenes overtakes the thing itself. And there was hardly a bigger Hollywood curveball this year than the hail-Mary replacement of a disgraced Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s prestige period drama All The Money in the World only weeks before its release. Following the radioactive fallout of sexual-assault allegations against Spacey this fall, fellow Oscar winner Christopher Plummer was hastily signed on to take over the star’s substantial central role — reshooting his part a nearly-unheard-of nine days, and delaying the scheduled delivery date to theaters by a mere three.
It could (and maybe should) have been a disaster. But All the Money is a smart, eminently watchable thriller, taut and stylish, and Plummer is remarkably good in it. Portraying the real-life industrialist J. Paul Getty, he looks like the avuncular silver-haired grandfather of 14 he was, but as a businessman — and a family man — he’s ruthless. It’s how he made his billions in oil, and why he infamously refused to pay the $17 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers who snatched his teenage grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, coincidentally named but unrelated) from the streets of Rome one summer night in 1973.
The senior Getty, a legendary skinflint who did his own hotel laundry to save room-service fees and haggled for dimes with street vendors, saw no reason to spend hard-earned, non-tax-deductible dollars on even his most favored grandchild when there were 13 more to spare. The boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), unsurprisingly, saw things differently: As Abigail Getty, a district judge’s daughter raised far from the kind of extreme wealth that ruined her drug-addled ex-husband, Williams still speaks in the fluty, anachronistic tones of a young Jackie Kennedy or Katherine Hepburn. But beneath her snug bouclé suits and debutante bouffant, she’s fiercely determined to bring her son home, and the actress makes you feel her desperation in almost every gesture.
Mark Wahlberg (who, like Williams, returned to Italy for the reshoots) seems less well cast as Getty Sr.’s strong-arm consigliere-slash-troubleshooter Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA agent tasked with making good deals happen and bad things go away. His laid-back modernity feels off for the setting, and he has one late confrontation with Plummer in particular that feels like it was airdropped in from a different, much clumsier movie. But Scott maintains the tight coil of his narrative tension — even for those who already know the outcome from living through it, or from history books — for nearly two hours, toggling between the terrified young Getty and his captors (a consortium of gangsters and Communists fronted by a quietly sympathetic Romain Durais) and his increasingly unglued family.
It’s hard to say of course how Spacey would have filled the role without actually seeing him onscreen (aside from the fact that he did look odd in the heavy aging prosthetics shown in the initial trailers, like a refugee from a Dick Tracy villain camp circa 1990). But there’s none of the cold Keyser Söze snake in the 88-year-old Plummer’s performance; he’s pitiless, without question, but pitiable too: a lonely old man clinging to things — estates, objets, Old Master paintings — because he can’t trust a human heart, least of all his own. It’s already earned him a Golden Globe nomination (Williams received one as well, as did Scott, for best director), which may be the industry’s way of recognizing an achievement in logistics as much as in quality filmmaking. At its best though, Money makes you forget all that and surrender to a story that might be almost too strange to believe, if it wasn’t entirely true. B+