The 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the 16-year-old grandson of billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, is told with solid style and suspense in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World.” But style and suspense are only part of the story, in a screenplay by David Scarpa that also mines a rich vein of substance — in the form of philosophical musings about the power and nature of money, both to corrupt and to sustain — out of the bedrock of this otherwise borderline B-movie. Based on portions of John Pearson’s 1995 book, “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty,” the film is larded with such epigrammatic quips as “There’s nothing people can’t find a way to turn into money.”
That’s Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) speaking to the kidnapped boy’s distraught mother Gail (Michelle Williams), in one of many cash-themed conversations that Scarpa finds time to shoehorn in, amid the de rigueur panicking, strategizing and negotiating. After the elder Getty (Christopher Plummer) refuses to meet the Italian kidnappers’ initial demand for $17 million for the return of his grandson, nicely portrayed by Charlie Plummer (no relation), the ransom eventually drops to $4 million. An ex-CIA operative, the cocky Fletcher is J. Paul Getty’s chief liaison with the kidnappers, police and Gail, who was left nearly penniless after divorcing the teen’s father, J. Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), depicted in the film as a feckless lush.
Mr. Getty — or the “old man,” as the billionaire is less formally known — is, for his part, depicted as a soulless miser who puts Scrooge to shame. (Coincidentally, Plummer also plays Ebenezer Scrooge in “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”) That caricature is probably not terribly far from the truth, even if the film’s fictionalized version of events sometimes seems to rely too heavily on poetic license to drive home its point: the love of money is the root of all evil. Plummer’s performance, a last-minute substitution for Kevin Spacey, who was edited out of the film after allegations of sexual impropriety were made against the actor, is a perfect fit for the film’s Croesus villain, both in age and steely, penny-pinching heartlessness. Plummer, who has just turned 88, is much closer to Getty’s age (80) at the time of the kidnapping; Spacey is 58, and appeared in heavy old-age makeup in early trailers.
The plot covers the five months during which the teenage Paul was held captive. One of the goons, nicknamed Cinquanta (Italian for “fifty”) and played by charismatic French actor Romain Duris, even develops a tender rapport with his hostage. Cinquanta’s almost paternal affection comes in handy, in a grisly scene depicting the most lurid aspect of the kidnapping — involving a severed body part — and, later, in the film’s climactic, and heavily fictionalized, rescue sequence. Michelle Williams is excellent as always, even if Scarpa’s script doesn’t give her much room to emote. Instead, Gail, who, as we’re constantly reminded, is not even a Getty by blood, shows herself to be a negotiator worthy of her father-in-law. In a flashback to her divorce negotiations, and in a bargaining session with an Italian newspaper that wants to pay her for a gruesome photo of Paul that the kidnappers have sent, the actress renders the worried mother as one tough Mama Bear.
Everything and everyone has a price, the film suggests, in ways that are far from subtle, but effective. Cops, doctors, journalists can be bought, and investors can be found to bet on any undertaking, no matter how unsavory. In one of the film’s most pointed scenes, Mr. Getty is negotiating with someone we are led to believe may be the kidnappers’ representative. It turns out to be an art dealer, however, offering, for $1.5 million, a religious painting. “My child,” Getty coos to the painted baby Jesus, in a voice that tells you just how creepy his attitude about money is: Commodities are just like people; both can be bought and sold.
Still, as he comments at one point, human beings are less predictable than things — including movies. “All the Money in the World” may not have that many surprises up its sleeve, especially if you already know how this story ends. You will, however, get your money’s worth, one way or another: whether it’s from the crime thriller or the thought-provoking sermon on filthy lucre that it throws in, at no extra charge.
R. Opens Christmas Day at area theaters. Contains strong language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug use. 132 minutes.