When you want to accomplish the unprecedented and make it look routine, it helps to have the skill, experience and committed collaborators Ridley Scott commands in "All the Money In the World."
The 80-year-old veteran director, responsible for everything from "Blade Runner" and "Alien" to "Gladiator" and "Thelma & Louise," made a decision last month to replace embattled principal Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer with just six weeks to go before the film's scheduled December release.
He's done it so successfully in this propulsive story of the notorious 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III that the movie is only a few minutes old before the whole issue fades from your mind.
That's partly because of the impeccable craft and complete success of Plummer in the role of the victim's grandfather, J. Paul Getty — a.k.a. "the richest man in the history of the world" — who refuses to pay so much as a penny of ransom out of a bizarre combination of parsimoniousness and principle.
Plummer, much closer in age to Getty than Spacey was in the role, makes a marvelous miser, never as disappointed by beautiful objects as he is by fallible people. "If you can actually count your money," the real Getty once said, "then you're not a rich man."
Also key to getting this job done is the director's high-functioning production machine, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (this is his sixth film with Scott) and editor Claire Simpson, capable of reshooting and integrating 22 new scenes into the finished product in record time at a reported cost of $10 million.
Though its theme of the corrosive influence of unimaginable wealth is not exactly news, "All the Money" benefits, in much the same way that Scott's similar (and underappreciated) "American Gangster" did, from the director's expertise at bringing pace and interest to stories he cares enough about to sink his teeth into.
It also helps, obviously, to have an involving script, and David Scarpa's work, which appeared on 2015's Black List, structures the Getty story in a way that combines a history of family dysfunction with a true-crime drama.
Adapted from John Pearson's nonfiction work "Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty," Scarpa's script is true to the broad outlines of the story while feeling free to dramatize specific incidents.
In addition to Plummer, "All the Money" is fortunate to have Michelle Williams in the cast. Her role as the victim's grieving but resolute mother, Gail Harris, is also a standard one, but Williams invests such passion in it that her work elevates the entire film.
Always expert at bringing conviction and reality to her characters, Williams makes Harris into a splendid antagonist for Plummer's Getty, as her concern for human caring and emotion is the perfect counterweight to the older man's rigid inflexibility.
Before these two have any reason to clash, we're introduced to the center of attention, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, known in real life as "the Golden Hippie" because of the cascading blond hair he affected.
Charlie Plummer (star of the festival hit "Lean on Pete") perfectly captures the insouciance of young Getty as he wanders the late-night streets of Rome, and the film uses his voice-over to make shrewd points about the world he comes from.
"To be a Getty is an extraordinary thing," young John Paul says. "We look like you, but we're not like you. It's like we're from another planet."
Getty's walk has barely begun before he is snatched off the streets of Rome by a group of kidnappers from Calabria connected to the criminal syndicate ’Ndrangheta that ask Harris for $17 million in ransom.
When the distraught mother accurately says she doesn't have that kind of money, Cinquanta (a spot-on Romain Duris), the kidnappers’ contact person, tells her to ask the boy's grandfather, the nominal possessor of "all the money in the world."
Except Getty senior doesn't see himself that way. Suspecting that the boy orchestrated his own kidnapping and pathologically attached to his oil wealth (we see him washing his own underwear in his luxury hotel room to save money), Getty claims he doesn't want to set a precedent that would put his other grandchildren at risk.
But he's also capable of saying, with a completely straight face, "I've never been more vulnerable financially. I have no money to give."
To keep the boy's mother from causing a fuss, Getty assigns Fletcher Chase (the always effective Mark Wahlberg), one of his corporate troubleshooters, to get a handle on the situation.
According to Pearson's book, Chase was "probably the worst emissary the old man could have chosen," but because "All the Money" feels the need of a quasi-heroic masculine presence, Chase's missteps are minimized and his action-hero credentials enhanced.
With as visual a director as Scott at the helm, the film is especially good at re-creating the frenzy and chaos the Italian press whipped up around the kidnapping, and it never loses sight of the pain Getty's inflexibility about his fortune causes his family.
"All the Money in the World" doesn't play the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" over the final credits, but that message comes through loud and clear.
‘All the Money in the World’
Rating: R, for language, some violent, disturbing images, and brief drug content
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release