Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol was a Christmas classic that is widely read and enjoyed to this day. Even more than the story, however, it was his characters that have stood the test of time, becoming assimilated into the larger pop culture. Ebenezer Scrooge became the quintessential symbol of frugality and a potent stinginess that transcended love, family and friendship. If you haven’t had the chance to come across the characters of this story yet, you can watch Robert Zemeckis’s animated film A Christmas Carol (2009) for a spectacular characterization and story-telling experience of the classic. Other pop culture adaptations include Uncle Scrooge from Disney’s ever popular Duck Tales, whose iconic dive into the money-pile in his vault made him an instant favourite with kids. Despite the comic caricature of these characters, it won’t be far away from home to assume that the richest men in the world would have some of those personality traits as well.
Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World is based on the life of J. Paul Getty who was noteably the world’s richest private citizen and the world’s first billionaire, valued at more than $6 billion at the time of his death in 1976. Getty’s fortunes mostly came from his forays into the Middle East and opening the Oil trade routes for America at a time when the United States had almost no presence in the Gulf. Getty’s vision led him to design special Oil-tankers that would ply between the continents and bring the invaluable fuel to America’s shore into Getty Oil Co., his own company. Despite the humongous amounts of dubloons that he raked in, Getty was a well-known miser.
Scott’s film revolves around a particular incident that elevated Getty to the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, no less. In 1973, while exploring the streets of Rome one evening, Getty’s teenage grandson John Paul Getty III was kidnapped by an organized Italian crime syndicate called ‘Ndrangheta for a ransom of $17 million. Getty’s relationship with his son (John Paul’s father) was a strained one as the former had abandoned him when he was a child, to pursue his business interests. Although John Paul Getty had no intentions of accosting his father, his desperate financial situation brought him with hopes that he would be employed by his father. Getty Jr. family stayed with Getty for a few years within which Getty Jr. squandered away his life in drugs and women, leading to a painful divorce between him and his wife Gail. Gail promptly took over the custody of their children and stayed away from the family’s affairs. The family that was dysfunctional to begin with, was now almost platonic with any of the members having any empathy for the other. However, after the kidnapping of Getty III, it fell on Gail to convince her rich Father-in-law to help her out with the ransom money. Getty advancing years had somehow mellowed him down a bit, so much so that he could almost express his emotions from time to time, showing fondness for his grandson. Gail knew how the old man felt about him and didn’t think it a big deal for him to shell out $17 million. After all, what could be more precious than his own grandson’s life, right? Well, she couldn’t be more wrong. Getty blatantly refused to take out even a single dollar from his pocket to pay for the ransom of his own grandson. According to him [not sic] – “If I had 10 grandsons and started paying ransoms for all of them, where would I be tomorrow?”. But thanks to Gail’s incessant requests for him to do “something”, Getty brought in Fletcher Chase who was his trusted Security Advisor to find Getty III and bring him back “at the least expense possible”.
The appeal of the film comes from the unempathetic and inimical way Getty approached his family relationships and the kidnapping of his grandson. To avoid taxes on his fortune, he had even opened a Trust in his name whose terms consisted of a clause that didn’t allow any kind of financial investment. However, it did allow him to purchase antiquities for himself, which he did at every chance he got. In a hilarious scene, we watch him talking to a somber person with whom he is negotiating a deal. From the scene, you are made to think that Getty has finally caved in and decided to save his grandson by paying the ransom to the kidnappers on his own. But in the very next scene, all our doubts are dispelled as we see the scene expand into Getty observing an art-work which he then buys for $1.5 million. At that moment, you are hit hard with the ruthlessness of this man who was not willing to pay a dime for his family and yet spent a million as if it were chump change. At the other side of the coin, the kidnappers were also flabbergasted by the stinginess of the boy’s family. In one comical scene, one of the kidnappers asks Getty III – “Does your family not love you ? Are you a bad boy ?”
Christopher Plummer, as J. P. Getty is regal in his stature and the very embodiment of Scrooge. As calm as he is in his Business dealings, he trembles and shakes when his family asks him for money. Although it would have been interesting to watch Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Old man Getty, it was immensely courageous for Scott to promptly replace him after the sexual allegations against him came to light. Despite the imminent reshoots and digital removal of all traces of Spacey, the final output looks as clean as if Spacey had never happened.
Michelle Williams, as Gail Harris, accurately portrays a broken woman who is struggling to keep her pride while asking for help from her father-in-law, who she knows wouldn’t help her. She scrapes the bottom of the barrel, selling her belongings, trying to accrue the ransom amount in abject desperation. Mark Wahlberg, as Fletcher Chase, is a character who has scenes that are few and far between with no significant contribution to the overall plot except as a tool for Getty to calm Gail down. Charlie Plummer as Getty’s kidnapped grandson is a lanky, nervous young lad who is very much aware of his worth but leaves no stones unturned to try and escape from the clutches of his captors.
Scott’s signature style is very much visible with his attention to detail about all the quirks surrounding his characters. However, the film feels slow at times in scenes that may have been done without. The central focus of the story could have been confined between Getty, Gail and Getty III. The dynamics between Getty and his son Getty Jr., played by Andrew Buchan did not require so much screenplay space as it did. But knowing Scott, he would have wanted to stay consistent to the actual story and sketch out the most exhaustive profile of the legendary J. Paul Getty as much as possible.
All the Money in the World is more of a character sketch than film. Add the premise of a crooked old billionaire not sparing a penny in ransom for his grandson’s life, and you’ve got yourself a dark comedy filled with ascerbic humor and a tale that stands out from our everyday mundane lives.
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