Sunday, December 31, 2017

All the Money in the World/The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World gained a certain notoriety in the fall of 2017, when just weeks before the release date Scott reshot a significant portion of the film with Christopher Plummer stepping into the role of J. Paul Getty in place of the disgraced Kevin Spacey. All the Money in the World is the story of the 1973 kidnapping of Getty's grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation) and of Getty's initial refusal to pay the ransom. The early scenes are a quick primer on how J. Paul Getty made his fortune in oil, and these early shots are really the only part of the film where digital sleight of hand is evident both in Christopher Plummer's insertion into shots and in making him look younger. (Christopher Plummer is 88 years old, and J. Paul Getty was 83 when he died.) Young Paul Getty is in Rome because his father John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) has been given a job in the Getty Oil empire that he doesn't want and isn't prepared for, but the dominant presence in Paul's life is that of his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). By the time of the kidnapping Gail and Getty II were divorced, and it is Harris - who describes herself as "not a real Getty" - who must prevail upon her former father-in-law for help.

The kidnapping of Paul Getty takes place against the background of 1970's European political terrorism and kidnapping for profit. David Scarpa's screenplay (based on a book by John Pearson) doesn't go into much detail about the kidnappers' non-financial motivation, but these kidnappers are a fairly haphazard group. Paul forms a tentative bond with Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who is the just the first of the group to accidentally let Paul see his face. It's just such an error that leads the police to raid the spot where Paul is being held, but by that point he has been sold to a businessman (Marco Leonardi) who wants to use Paul as a way to his grandfather's fortune. The procedural parts of All the Money in the World are well-executed but feel familiar: there are scenes of Gail confronting the Italian police and arguing with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-CIA operative hired by J. Paul Getty to find his grandson. The details of the case and of Paul's captivity - save for a frightening scene of mutilation - could be drawn from any number of movies, and the phone calls between Gail and Cinquanta function as exposition more than as a way to build character or tension. The film works much better as a study of privilege, with Christopher Plummer excellent as a man who views people as assets and a historically unequaled fortune as a perilous financial situation. It would have been very easy given the time constraints of the reshoots for J. Paul Getty to have come off as a cartoon, but Plummer achieves so much more by doing less. Michelle Williams is equally good as Gail, a woman of nominal privilege - no one believes she can't get the ransom money - who in fact is almost powerless to help her son. It is Gail who first pushes her husband to appeal to J. Paul Getty for a job and she is delighted when one comes through, but after the divorce Gail must play a different game with the Getty family and Williams gives her a scrappiness that makes the second half of the movie hang together emotionally. She also isn't afraid to make Gail unsympathetic, and pulls off a scene where Gail complains that people don't believe she isn't rich. Ridley Scott doesn't skimp on the irony of where Gail finds herself in the end, when she appears to get something that she thought she wanted all along.

All the Money in the World is a strongly acted film that doesn't quite transcend its crime-movie frame, but in telling Gail's story it does have something to say about money both as a means of access and of control. While the film will get outsized attention because of scandal, it works as a smart entertainment that deserves to be seen.

Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a sculptor, but not as well-known as his friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch). He's also a father, but not as naturally as his sons Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Danny (Adam Sandler) are to their children. Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)is the story of what happens when Matthew, Danny, and their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) must confront their aging father with all of their ambivalence and love. Baumbach has always been interested in self-centered, irascible fathers and their emotionally stunted children, but in Meyerowitz he tempers the angst with a humor that feels closer to recent work like Mistress America. Arguments and awkward encounters are cut away from abruptly, and while Stiller and Sandler are playing fully realized characters they also get to indulge their talents for physical comedy. A medical crisis brings the family together in the film's second half, including Danny's daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) and Harold's wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). If The Squid and the Whale is a touchstone film on living through one's parents divorcing, then here Baumbach is equally good on how divorce affects adult children. (I can't recall a film so specific about what it means to have a half-sibling.) Old resentments return and traumas are recalled, but Meyerowitz isn't a film about not being able to outrun the past. There is a life ahead for the Meyerowitz children, and it begins with something as simple as Jean's new haircut or Danny's attraction to a woman (Rebecca Miller) he knew as a child. By the end both Harold and his work are in a sense filed away, and the Meyerowitz kids are racing towards the middle of their lives.