Review: Ridley Scott is back to form with “All the Money in the World”

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/6/18 2:25am

Last year, Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” premiered, but does anyone even remember the film? Neither do I, which is kind of astonishing given its recent release date. I mention this, not because this is a review of “Alien: Covenant,” but because the release of both “Alien: Covenant” and “All the Money in the World” in the same year illustrates the most fascinating and contradictory qualities associated with Scott’s skills and limitations as a filmmaker. “Alien: Covenant” was awful, easily one of the worst films in recent memory. In fact, it was so dreadful that I kyboshed my plans to review the film and instead implored my editors to let me do a retrospective on the revival of my favorite TV series, “Twin Peaks.” This was made all the worse because Scott had recently launched a successful career comeback with 2015’s crowd-pleasing “The Martian.” This all speaks to a long-standing truism about Scott — he is only as good as the script he’s working from. At this point in his career, no one would deny that he is a master of his craft; each of his films is, without fail, gorgeous and technically impeccable. Indeed, when he has a great script, like “Blade Runner,” he does a wonderful job at visually highlighting and complementing the complex themes and ideas that are often interwoven so beautifully into the story. The problem is that Scott seems utterly incapable of discerning between a great script and a terrible script. No director should be able to list “Thelma & Louise” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” on the same résumé.

My point is that after watching “Alien: Covenant,” I desperately needed a break from Scott’s work to remind myself that the man who directed the film was indeed the same man who had directed some of my favorite films of all time. So, given that Scott seems to play Russian Roulette with his screenplays, did we get lucky this time? For the most part, I think so. Screenwriter David Scarpa has, at the very least, done a competent job of retelling the infamous kidnapping of John Paul Getty III and his grandfather’s subsequent refusal to pay a cent of the ransom despite being the richest man in the world. In fact, I encourage anyone who sees the film to research the real-life incident afterward. Scarpa’s adaptation of the 1995 book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” is precisely that — an adaptation. It condenses and exaggerates certain plot points, but for the most part, it is surprisingly faithful — it turns out that many insane details of the true story didn’t even make it into the final film.

That said, neither Scott’s storied career nor the scintillating premise have been the real draw for most people who have gone to see the film. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Kevin Spacey’s rightful expulsion from Hollywood led the makers of “All the Money in the World” to excise him from the final product a mere month before its release. In his place, Christopher Plummer was brought in for nine days of reshoots as the industrialist J. Paul Getty, resulting in one of the most fascinating production stories in recent memory.

As undoubtedly tough as it must have been to pull off those reshoots, there’s also no denying that they proved to be a huge promotional boost for the film. It’s all the more impressive given that Plummer blends so seamlessly into the film; his scenes are clearly not green screen trickery and, in fact, he manages to give one of his best performances. We don’t know how Spacey would have played the part, but it frankly doesn’t matter — Plummer is commanding and captivating, dominating the film with a steely gaze and a vicious smile.

Michelle Williams is similarly exceptional as Gail Harris, J. Paul Getty III’s mother. It’s an emotionally charged performance and she fully commits. Mark Wahlberg is adequate as Fletcher Chase, the assisting ex-CIA operative. But occasionally one is reminded that this is the same actor who said yes to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” and two Michael Bay “Transformers” films. The only piece of really questionable casting comes in the form of Charlie Plummer as J. Paul Getty III. True to reality, the character is written as something of a laid-back hippy, but there’s a fine line between relaxed and un-invested — a line which he frequently crosses.

Likewise, there’s something of a hole at the center of the film which may be attributable to the reshoots. The film vividly paints the almost Oedipal dynamic in the Getty family, but it never really explores their damage all that deeply. It’s as if the film is saying, “Look at these crazy rich people! Look how screwed up they are!” In the back of my head, all I could think was, “So what?” The film certainly doesn’t glamorize the Getty family’s wealth but portrays its devastating consequences. But one senses that there might be scenes missing around the periphery of the main story, scenes that could further illuminate how complicated the Getty family’s monstrousness is. Perhaps those hypothetical scenes simply couldn’t be re-done for the reshoots; regardless, the film feels like it’s only tackling the surface of this family’s rot.

Nonetheless, as one would expect, the film is well-directed and certainly one of Scott’s more cogent and comprehensible efforts in recent years. For all of its imperfections, it is certainly riveting and sometimes painfully intense. Fans of Scott’s work might have flashbacks to the final 30 minutes of “Alien” during some of the more gut-wrenching scenes. While “All the Money in the World” won’t be ranked alongside “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator” as one of Scott’s masterpieces, it’s a solid comeback after a stinker as potent as “Alien: Covenant.” If nothing else, it manages to transcend the controversy and external drama surrounding its production. It stands entirely on its own as a well-made film, which is not small feat given the circumstances.