27 February 2018

Review: All the Money in the World

(Dir: Ridley Scott, 2017)

There's a line uttered halfway through All the Money in the World by the mercurial J.P. Getty (Christopher Plummer): "Priceless? I deplore that word. Dirty and old? I have no problem." In some ways that gets to the core of this character/man, as everything is to be bought and nothing is out of reach, with his whole life defined by the power presented to him by his ever-growing mountains of money. Now just imagine, in light of what we all now know, how that line would have sounded coming out of Kevin Spacey's mouth. Yes, it's impossible not to address the elephants in the room. As a comparison it would be fascinating to watch the original cut with Spacey playing the billionaire, especially as Plummer is so damn good at exuding a callous ruthlessness. The original trailer treated Spacey as the big reveal – the real reason you're going to want to watch this but his heavily made-up and prostheticised appearance felt jarring in these brief snippets, suggesting this might be bordering on characature. It's unlikely we'll ever know if they made the right creative decision (this being different to the right thing to do morally or what's best for business), as the Spacey iteration suggested a domineering and larger-than-life version, rather than Plummer's more isolationist and almost mythical character. Perhaps being able to see a finished cut of the film let him work out how to make the character work even better?

Which leads us to elephant number two: $1.5 million. Not the ransom demanded for J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), but Mark Whalberg's fee for reshooting some of his scenes as Fletcher Chase in light of the Spacey/Plummer switch. Scott Mendelson at Forbes wrote a prescient article about this controversy of Michelle Williams' payment for reshoots being just $1,000 (read it here). It feels like it needs reiterating here since it highlights the deeper issue going unreported due to the sensationalism of the numbers: the lack of quality, lead roles available to female actors today. Williams, playing Gail Harris, is the lead in the film, and she likely accepted expenses only to ensure the film got released since it's important for roles like this to get as much exposure as possible. Plus she is excellent here. This is a reasonably big film by her standards, but typically in bigger films she (and most other female actors) would be cast as the love interest / wife (cough The Greatest Showman). Whalberg on the other hand is one of the world's biggest film stars and for him this is smaller than all his most recent work, a prestige picture in which his character is third most important. So why shouldn't he, like everyone else involved, try and get paid properly for this extra work? The studio could've said no to his monetary demands, but since his character interacts with JP Getty more than any other his involvement in the reshoots was essential, thus he had nothing to lose by asking. Williams had as much right to make similar monetary demands, but no doubt knew that doing so could have a negative impact on her career, limiting her potential to be considered for the smaller number of quality, visible, female roles. They all have a right to be paid fairly for this extra work, especially when it came about so suddenly, so this shouldn't necessarily be an indictment on Whalberg, it's an indictment on an industry that values its female actors far less, not just monetarily but in it's reluctance to cast them in leading roles, especially in the high profile films that proliferate our screens weekly. It should also be noted that director Ridley Scott allegedly worked on the reshoots for expenses only too.

So now we've addressed the two huge elephants rather unsubtly sitting in the corner, what of the film itself? It is a thoroughly engaging thriller that benefits from it's seventies setting and how it (mostly) jumps between Italy and Getty's staid, hollow palace of wealth in the English countryside. Scott creates an almost dreamlike world something about the way it's lit and shot feels almost hyper-real, but that helps tease some tension out especially when you're not familiar with the actual events. But this is essentially a two-hander, a game of chess between Gail and Getty himself. A mother prepared to do anything for her son who doesn't care about the money, versus the curmudgeonly patriarch who cares more about the name and reputation he's carefully crafted, the power from owning things and his prospect of getting a tax write-off. And it works because both Williams and Plummer are excellent, inhabiting their characters so effectively. The rest of the supporting cast do a fine job but they are merely window dressing.

At the end of the day All the Money In the World is a decent film that will, unfairly, be remembered for it's controversies. More written about than seen. But it features a couple of excellent performances and an interesting dive into the psychology of someone wealthy beyond compare, which retains an abhorrent fascination that makes some sort of sense by the end.

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