Back in 1973, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of billionaire John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), was snatched off the street in Rome by Calabrian mobsters. When the ransom demand for $17 million arrived, most of the family and police dismissed it as a prank.
The younger Getty had been in and out of trouble for years and joked about staging his own kidnapping to get some money out of his stingy grandfather. But as the days, weeks and months passed and young Paul didn’t surface, his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) refused to accept this and pressured the police and his grandfather, via his advisor Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to please take it seriously.
This much of the story is mostly true. But as the disclaimers at the start and finish make clear, this movie is “inspired by” true events – not a historical or bio-pic. Apart from a few more key plot details, much of what we see is straight out of the active imagination of writer David Scarpa, though it does make for one wild and rather satisfying yarn.
While director Ridley Scott’s thriller delivers with brilliant casting (the resemblance between Williams, Plummer and Plummer to their real-life characters is uncanny) and beautiful period details (although nitpickers like me will rail against the key song “Time of the Season” playing in a 1964 scene, when it was not released until 1968) – the most interesting back story is that it was originally shot with Kevin Spacey in the key role of John Paul Getty. Rather than see what he believes is a really good movie flop when Spacey was disgraced by sexual assault allegations – 80-year-old Scott chose to recast and reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes, a substantial amount of the film, with Christopher Plummer. Six weeks prior to its Christmas release!
This meant that leads Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg had to reshoot their scenes with him, not to mention the locations had to be cleared and crews organised. The result is seamless and passionate, without a hint of compromise.
Plummer (who is not related to Charlie Plummer playing his grandson) seems born to the role of the elderly miser who refuses to pay the full amount the kidnappers have in mind and negotiates a reduced payment that will enable him to take a tax deduction, including loaning his own son a million dollars with interest. While it’s tempting to call him a Scrooge, he has an impish quality subtly reminiscent of The Grinch – you can’t really loathe him, in spite of his meanness.
Michelle Williams is his perfect foil. She has no financial power, but she can negotiate the toughest deal and walk away with what she wants. Yet Williams never walks away smug, she carries the weight of those terrible victories on her face and her shoulders and in every step she takes, reminding us what an incredible talent she is. Oddly, it is Mark Wahlberg who doesn’t seem to have quite enough to do and spends a little too much time explaining things – though he gets a few moments to shine. Charlie Plummer does a nice job as young Paul, delivering a deftly artless performance as he shifts from spoiled teenager to terrified captive.
What I didn’t like? The Hollywood Ending! Really. It only happens that way in the movies, folks.
It opens January 4th. Go see it and tell me what you think.
Watch the trailer here: