David Edelstein makes a more persuasive case to read the source material for All the Money in the World than I could make for watching it. That isn’t to say it’s a poorly made time-killer; what it lacks is inspiration. The plot unfolds like an instruction manual, step by step, with characters spelling out their thoughts while the most obvious songs imaginable establish the period. (Using the Rolling Stones for your clichés must cost all the money in the world.) Michelle Williams, playing a woman whose kidnapped son’s multi-billionaire grandfather refuses to pay the ransom, as if withholding it would build the lad’s character, acts up to the bigness of the production. When she broke down in Manchester by the Sea, it was like watching grief cave in on a mother who’d lost a son in different circumstances. Here, she plays the smart woman who always falls for the loser: critically, a scion of the Getty Oil fortune and casualty of ’60s burnout (Andrew Buchan).
Gail always has to take charge; everyone around her is a moron till proven competent, and that’s especially true for the rich. Even if she’s not given a shred of backstory it’s clear that she’d been around the social register long enough to ever warm up to the likes of the Gettys. But Gail’s claims of being ordinary are refuted by her mannerisms. It’s a sight to see a wonderfully gifted naturalistic actress like Williams glint like Katharine Hepburn.
Williams’s performance would tip director Ridley Scott’s hand, in terms of how he interpreted what’s at the core of this material, if it weren’t for the (last-minute) countervailing force of Christopher Plummer as Gail’s former father-in-law: J. Paul Getty, supposedly the richest man in the world at the time, and also the cheapest. If Williams channels patrician movie queens, Plummer lollygags like Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His Getty is like an aristocrat who’d hunt men just for sport—and yet he has the gaiety of Willy Wonka. It’s a weird-ass mistake, but it’s not the first time this octogenarian’s made it: he’s having too much fun.
That may be octogenarian Scott’s problem, too, even if he seems less like a film director these days than a film manager. I can’t fault him for having what appears to be a passion for solving creative problems; I simply wish he solved those problems more creatively. His favored solution tends to be to standing in the middle of the road, facing whichever direction the cars are driving toward. But what’s at the heart of this subject matter, by way David Scarpa’s script, induces a 12-car pileup. The problem is: how should we feel about the super-rich? Like Baz Luhrmann, Scott veers away.
The only people without ambivalent opinions on this topic are the very rich, the very poor, or the very stupid—whose ranks are abundant in both. If you want to see that ambivalence interrogated, however, without losing the meticulously constructed entertainment superstructure, I would point you toward The Founder. Lost in the shuffle last Oscar season, that biopic of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) also ended by enumerating all the charities to which a questionably amassed fortune had been bequeathed. But the rise of Kroc’s McDonald’s empire was the story, and Keaton a time bomb tossed at it. When he dropped the f-word, it detonated John Lee Hancock’s placid direction and Robert D. Siegel’s bootstrapping narrative. But it struck me as a planned explosion, one that illuminated how snugly that entrepreneur, for good and ill, fit inside our free-market mythology. Those filmmakers proved that one can live it while thinking through it, whereas the makers of All the Money in the World, like most of us, live it only to avoid it.