All the Money in the World

Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: David Scarpa


It would be easy to watch All the Money in the World and assume that the story is essentially about the inhumanity and immorality of greed, but I think that would be a mischaracterisation. Although the Getty we see in this film is a tight-fisted miser whose heartless resolve to keep hold of his money while his grandson suffers defies any sense of empathy, I don’t think calling what he does simple greed gets to the heart of what this movie is really about. What this film is ultimately asking us to consider is what exactly it is that money does to a person and it chooses as its subject Getty, who at the time was not only the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world. How does possessing that kind of wealth affect the way one thinks and sees the world? What kind of person does one have to become in order to manage the power, status, and exposure that come with it? How does someone with ‘all the money in the world’ value everything else in their life? Those are just some of the questions at the heart of this story.

Based on his biography Painfully Rich, the film focuses on one specific chapter in the life of J. Paul Getty (Kevin Spacey Christopher Plummer), the kidnapping of his grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973. A ransom of $17 million is set, an amount that the 16-year-old’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) cannot even begin to pay. Having never asked her former father-in-law for a thing since divorcing his son John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), her only hope is to appeal to Getty for the ransom. Getty, despite being fully aware that the amount is mere pocket change to a man of his calibre, flat out refuses to pay so much as a penny. He does however employ Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative and one of Getty’s top negotiators, to accompany Gail and investigate the matter to help secure his grandson’s release. As the media picks up on the story and the whole matter turns into a sensation, Getty III is kept hostage in a remote location in Italy where his precarious situation gets worse with each passing day.

In his portrayal of Getty, made all the more remarkable with the knowledge that he had mere days to prepare and play the role, Plummer holds nothing back. He is utterly ruthless and repugnant in his refusal to pay the ransom, but with just enough humanity that we can see where his pitiless, cold-hearted mind is coming from. There is a cruel, business-like logic to Getty’s decision as he argues that if he were to pay the full ransom without question, it would set a precedent that would make himself and possibly his family even more vulnerable. That doesn’t mean Getty is coming from a place of regard or nobility though, far from it. It comes from the unfeeling outlook he has accrued from having built his fortune. To him money is not money, it is power and influence. It is an extension of who he is and what he represents and it affects every deal, every relationship, and every interaction in his life. Getty’s understanding of the world, of people and of society has been shaped by his wealth and it has instilled within him this mind-set that everyone else is constantly after what it his. If he gives away as much as an inch, it will open the floodgates. Thus he guards his riches and status the way a dragon guards its treasure.

It’s for that exact reason that Getty was taken aback years before the kidnapping when Gail left her husband and walked away with the kids and nothing else. Having long believed that anybody who interacts with him is always working some angle or holding some agenda and is always trying to get something from him, it is a mystery to Getty in a way that is perfectly obvious to the rest of us how this woman could possibly walk away from his empire with no conditions save to be left alone with her children. Because Getty is the better known character and the meatier role in the film, it’s easy to overlook the stellar work Williams delivers as the frustrated, desperate mother trying to rescue her son. She exhibits a remarkable degree of restraint in her dealings with the icy Getty that is only just able to contain her clear loathing of the man, knowing full well that scolding and pleading with him will get her nowhere and that he must be handled tactically. It is a balance that Williams pulls off wonderfully, creating a character whom we entirely believe will do anything to save her son, including making a deal with the most greedy, ruthless businessman alive.

Scott has shown before that he can make a story as cinematic as anybody else, but here, apart from a couple of elaborate set-pieces, his directing style is restrained, perhaps in order to draw more focus on the actors and allow them to carry the story. In the hands of Plummer, Williams, and a couple of others (like Duris who is very good as one of the kidnappers) the story works well. Wahlberg is the weak link, playing the former CIA operative in a performance that is competent and nothing else. He says his lines and delivers his reactions well enough, but ultimately his character is a nonentity who fails to leave a lasting impression. The film also suffers from a monotonous middle act that plays some of the same beats a little too often and the balance between believable realism and Hollywood fantasy gets a little uneven towards the end with the way that the film places Gail and Fletcher in a precarious situation that they probably got nowhere near in real life (I had the same issue with the car chase at the end of Argo). Still All the Money in the World is all in all a solid film that’s well worth the watch for the fascinating character studies of Gail and Getty and for the intriguing insights offered about money, power, and compassion.

★★★★

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The Greatest Showman

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Writers: Jenny Hicks, Bill Condon


The Greatest Showman is an upbeat, extravagant musical about love, diversity, and acceptance, centred on a man who was the antithesis of all those things. Far from the glitzy, broad-minded entertainer presented here, the real Barnum was a much more complex and questionable figure; someone who was known for being greedy, exploitative, opportunistic, dishonest, and cruel, and for having (at best) a problematic relationship with people of colour and ‘freaks’. This film brushes so much of Barnum’s darker side under the rug that it could only be called a biopic in the most liberal sense possible. But then, I think the filmmakers are aware of that. This film is so profusely romantic, fantastical, and sentimental that I don’t think any audience member is going to think of it as an accurate representation of Barnum any more than they would think of 300 as an accurate representation of Ancient Greece. Indeed, this story is so obviously phoney and is told in such a sensational way that, from that point of view, The Greatest Showman could be seen as the perfect representation of Barnum.

Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a dreamer living within his humble 19th century means but is waiting for a chance to shine. He is married to Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family whom he’s known since childhood, and together they have two daughters. After losing his job as a clerk, Barnum takes out a loan to start a museum of wax figures, hoping to create a sensation that will take the world by storm. When sales prove meagre, he sets out to enlist individuals of unusual proportions, characteristics, and abilities, including the dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and African-American trapeze performing siblings Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to add some life to the show. The show is a hit, despite negative press, and Barnum renames his museum ‘Barnum’s Circus’. Seeking to improve his reputation with the upper classes, Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his business partner and famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) as his star performer. As his success grows however, Barnum starts to lose sight of his family, both literal and metaphorical.

The story is crap, to put it bluntly. It is wholeheartedly transparent, eye-rollingly schmaltzy, and every single second of it rings hollow and feels fake. However, it is the most spectacular, vivacious, entertaining crap I’ve seen in a long time. This movie may not be the greatest show, but every member of the cast and crew sincerely believes that it is and their earnestness and effort shine through. The whole thing feel phoney, but not a single person who worked on this film was phoning it in. Every single song is sung, choreographed and shot as if it is the show-stopping number of the musical and the images and sounds throughout are simply teeming with life, imagination and feeling. There is a sense of purpose and clarity behind every shot in every sequence, even when they get as frantic and intense as Moulin Rouge, and there is always a strong attempt being made to utilise the props and sets to their fullest potential, from the tables, glasses, and stools in the two musical scenes that take place in the bar to the knotted rope hanging in the centre of the ring in Efron and Zendaya’s romantic duet. I can scarcely dream what this team might have accomplished with a story of actual substance.

Even when the film is at its most silly and sappy, each performer from the main stars to the background singers and dancers are trying so hard and so sincerely that it’s hard to hold it against them. Jackman is every bit the showman the movie wants him to be and is so charming and likeable, you almost want to forgive the film for his thin characterisation and unearned climatic redemption. Williams, Efron and Zendaya are all bright-eyed and vibrant in their roles and hold nothing back in their full embrace of the film in all of its glorious splendour and fundamental misguidedness. They’re just so darn enchanting and heartfelt that their lack of self-awareness only adds to their appeal. Humphrey and Settle, the latter of whom is a magnificent singer, do wonders in their small roles, as does Sparks, whose theatre critic character serves as a pre-emptive surrogate for all those critics who don’t ‘get’ the film and denounce it for its gaudiness and cheapness.

But The Greatest Showman is gaudy and it is cheap. As stunning and enjoyable as the style and performances are, it’s all to serve the weakest and shallowest of plots. The film wants to celebrate the outcasts of society and the way that show business can create a home for those who have been rejected by all else so much that it happily overlooks the exploitative qualities of Barnam’s character, portraying him instead as a child of poverty who identifies with the struggles the ‘freaks’ face in their everyday lives. Thus, when his ambition and pride cause him to neglect his wife and children and the makeshift family he has built, he must then be reminded of what’s really important in life, after which everything is fine and they live happily ever after. It isn’t about being historically accurate, it’s about being true to the hardships being depicted and the morals being conveyed and this film is far too one-dimensional and clichéd to offer any insights of actual worth. The Greatest Showman is a spectacle well worth beholding, but the showmanship is all there is.

★★★

Manchester by the Sea

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Writer: Kenneth Lonergan


One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.

In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.

For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.

Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.

★★★★★