“All the Money in the World” crafts an engaging thriller from a true story

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There’s been a proliferation of films that turn real-life stories into cinematic thrillers. These films, while tending to be well made, have always felt little more than dramatized newspaper headlines. “All the Money in the World,” however, has stuck with me because it’s actually about something.

The script, by David Scarpa, is a decidedly mature take on the kidnapping story, taking what could be a sensationalist docudrama and turning it into an involving saga on the effects of unchecked greed. It’s not a particularly original theme, but it is a well-executed one. And it’s best refracted through the character of J. Paul Getty.

The Getty of this film feels larger than life. When we first see him, he’s standing alone in an insanely over-decorated room, hunched over, eyes cast in shadow, seeming more like Dracula than an actual human being. He’s paranoid and lonely. He’s amassed an art collection so large that his house has started to look like an episode of “Hoarders” set in the 18th century. And, most importantly, he’s almost completely cut off from his family. Christopher Plummer’s performance lends a lot to this. The man has the gravitas of a solar system and the expertise of a seasoned thespian. He takes the dialogue, chews it up, spits it out, and calls out for more with relish. This is more than just a performance that’s good enough despite the situation: it’s straight up fantastic.

Our main protagonist, however, is Gail Harris, mother of the kidnapped teenager, J. Paul Getty III. Played by Michelle Williams in a performance that’s more than game to match Plummer’s, Gail makes for a very likable and sympathetic protagonist. In the way that she’s written in the script, she could have easily fallen into the cliche “distressed mother” character. However, Williams is able to imbue her character with some much personality and nuance that she’s able to transcend the screen. There’s this great lightness to the way that she delivers the dialogue. Even in moments of terror, Williams handles the personality and nuances of the character’s complicated emotions with the finesse of an acrobat.

These performances are guided by Scott’s sure hand as a director. Because he’s worked in the industry for so long, and because many of his projects tend to be hit or miss, I think it’s easy to overlook just how talented of a filmmaker Ridley Scott is. Some of his shots are masterclasses in composition, dancing through the ornate locations with skill and ease. Scott never just covers the action, he takes into account each character’s emotional state and frames each and every shot accordingly. In a film that’s both a thriller and an ensemble drama, the fact that the direction is still so balanced and character-driven should be applauded.

The film isn’t perfect, however. There’s a prologue at the beginning that just feels clumsy and mishandled. One of the red flags is that it’s the only segment with voiceover, written and delivered blandly, and that voiceover only serves to bookend this 20-minute opening sequence. In the prologue, we get some information about the Getty family and Getty III’s relationship with his grandfather. While plot points gleaned from this scene are brought in later in the film, sometimes effectively, and viewers get the feeling that they could have been more effectively planted elsewhere. The entire prologue feels like one of those “special features” short films that they’d include in the Blu-ray, not an actual part of the narrative.

Also, it might seem like I’ve forgotten to mention Mark Wahlberg. That’s because his performance is so boring and bland that it’s easy to forget his character even exists. This is especially frustrating because just taking the script and dialogue at face value, you can tell that the character of Fletcher Chase has actual depth and a legitimate character arc. However, there are literally zero points in the movie where Wahlberg’s acting actually reflects this character’s growth.

He seems like he’s so preoccupied with coming off as a stoic, leading-man type that he’s forgotten how to actually play a character. Honestly, in every scene he’s in, he’s only willing to convey the most surface level, baseline emotion that the dialogue gives. His performance feels like he shot his scenes in a vacuum as if he thought that they were all disconnected, individual short films that were later edited together.

Still, the negative aspects of All the Money in the World do little to outweigh what is still an engaging and fascinating study in greed. J. Paul Getty is like a real-life Daniel Plainview. What actually goes on in a mind as twisted as his will always remain a mystery. Yet, we can still use him as a symbol for the unchecked American id, in all its demented glory.

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