Super-wealthy oilman J. Paul Getty had all the money in the world, and a formula for success: “Rise early, work hard, strike oil.” The old man, notoriously tightfisted, might have burst an artery over the funds spent on expunging Kevin Spacey from Ridley Scott’s new “based on true events” kidnapping thriller All the Money in the World (★★★★) in time for the film to meet its release date.
Spacey, who had wrapped his role as Getty in the nearly finished film, was swapped out at the last moment for Christopher Plummer. Onscreen, the change only shows in one glaringly obvious processed exterior shot. Otherwise, fortunately for the filmmakers, their unforeseen excavation seems to have struck oil.
First, audiences will be spared the horror of watching Spacey perform the role buried under some really frightening looking old-age make-up. The actor bore an uncanny resemblance to the driller killer in Brian De Palma’s Body Double. But even better, Plummer makes a mighty fine malevolent millionaire — or billionaire, as Getty would be sure to remind any and everyone.
Regardless of the number of zeroes on his balance sheet, Getty had no interest in being dragged into the business of paying ransoms. So, when his heir, 16-year old Paul Getty III (played as a brooding cherub by Charlie Plummer, no relation), is kidnapped in 1973 off a street in Rome, the richest man alive doesn’t want to pay a cent for the boy’s return.
Instead, David Scarpa’s snappy script, based on the book by John Pearson, sends in his best negotiator, ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase. As the ever-resourceful Chase, Mark Wahlberg appears incongruous in Getty’s plummy, country estate environs, but the actor and his furrowed brow convey Chase’s strongest parts in the story. Chase is paid to act on his professionally misdirected moral compass, yet even he registers the sad realization that he’s working for a man who’d haggle over the life of his grandson.
Getty really only starts bargaining after the kidnappers mail him Paul’s severed ear. That gruesome detail is one irrefutable fact in the true-life tale, much of which is embellished for the purpose of suspense by Scott. Droll and riveting, the movie still feels long, although Michelle Williams, as Paul’s determined mother Abigail Harris, makes every iota of screen time count.
Firmly establishing the warmer pole opposite Plummer’s frigid Getty, Williams’ character clearly defines a thin line of distinction between being rich, and being rich like an emperor. Gail comes from some money, but until she’d married into Getty’s wealth she didn’t fully understand or appreciate all the things his money can’t buy. All the Money in the World is richer for Williams’ vividly down-to-earth portrayal, and likewise it is no poorer for the loss of its original Getty. If anything, the relative seamlessness of the shift should only add to Ridley Scott’s reputation as one of cinema’s premier master planners.
Sir Ridley could, no doubt, teach a thing or two to the notoriously bad filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. But, as evidenced by Wiseau’s much-maligned magnum opus The Room, any wisdom Scott might impart would only be horribly mangled and misunderstood. Wiseau is the subject of James Franco’s hilarious The Disaster Artist (★★★½), another awards-season contender based on real-life events. How did a wannabe artist with the means, a vision, and the committed assistance of actual Hollywood professionals create a movie now revered as the unintentionally worst of its kind since the days of Ed Wood?
Well, Tommy Wiseau, as glum as Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood was giddy, would appear to be the main cause of the silver screen catastrophe. As depicted in Franco’s remarkably sincere performance, Wiseau, aspiring filmmaker and mumbling enigma, enlists his best — or only — friend, struggling actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), to help him produce a movie. The resulting tragic love story The Room is painstakingly recreated in all its awfulness for Franco’s funhouse mirror rendition.
Somehow the actor and his cast — including Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Megan Mullally, and Zac Efron — disappear into character, while maintaining a knowing presence along the story’s edges. That might be an apt description for James Franco’s onscreen persona, yet it works especially well here. Franco directing a nude James Franco in a scene in which Wiseau debates the merits of doing a nude scene in the movie he’s directing is a delightfully twisted form of comedy.
Add that Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is basically obsessed with his actor bro Greg, who’s being played by Franco’s actual brother, Dave, and there’s real meat on this Franco sandwich. The biggest joke might be that for all its wink-wink sarcasm, The Disaster Artist feels authentic.
Authenticity is not a quality that comes roaring to screen in director Michael Gracey’s big-budget P.T. Barnum musical biopic The Greatest Showman (★★½). Starring Tony-certified song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman as the rags-to-riches tailor’s son Barnum and Michelle Williams as his (far less interesting) born-rich wife, The Greatest Showman chooses spectacle over authenticity every time.
Unfortunately, Gracey, a former visual effects artist making his feature directing debut, delivers pretty bland spectacle. The film boasts lions and elephants and a lovable crew of circus freaks belting anthems by the Oscar-winning La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Yet, those great animals are fairly flat, cookie-cutter CGI, even on a large screen, and the bearded lady’s beard often looks in danger of coming unglued. The songs are, for the most part, rousingly staged and well-sung, especially in Jackman’s case, but they tend to say the same things over and over.
The story may be short on surprises, but Zendaya surprises by truly holding the screen as Barnum’s star trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler. Outcast due to her race, Anne falls hopelessly in love with Zac Efron’s pretty but cowardly junior impresario, Phillip Carlyle.
Theirs is one of a few storylines in this 19th-century-set drama that’s spun with a thoroughly modern sensibility. Again, the portrayal doesn’t feel entirely authentic to Barnum’s actual, historically significant stances on race and politics. But the concept that he understood his little monsters were all born this way passes as innovation. Barnum most likely would have approved of a romanticized portrait that plays as fast and loose with the facts, as did the man in its center ring.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (★★★) focuses on foiled feds who played fast and loose with the facts and got caught, thanks to the power of a vigilant, free press.
Were the movie not so intently about the shockwave publication, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, of the ultimately damning Pentagon Papers, it might more soundly succeed at being about the shocking revelation of the Pentagon Papers. That is, practically every moment and practically every character is imbued with the distracting light of “Hollywood Importance.” It’s exasperating.
Spielberg’s best films feel in the moment. The Post is a production too self-conscious about its subject matter to be in the moment. Boxes of documents are lavished with arduously choreographed tracking shots that grab the audience by the lapels to shout, “Oh my god, do you know how important this is? Right there, in that box! The Pentagon Papers! They’re in that box! Oh my god!” Yes, we get it. Calm down, and let us watch the movie.
There’s something off about Tom Hanks. He’s co-starring as the Post‘s venerable editor Ben Bradlee, but his gruff readings are more a well-honed impression than a performance. He’s aware, too, and now he’s grabbing lapels. “Don’t you get it, they’ve been lying to us about Vietnam! It’s all in the Papers.” Yes, the Papers.
Against those stacked odds, Meryl Streep ekes out a fascinating character as publisher Katharine Graham, who flounders but never fails, standing up to multiple layers of Establishment scorn and opposition. Streep, in turn, reveals a layer of vulnerability, and steel that feels refreshingly unfamiliar — no small feat for a performer who is utterly familiar to audiences.
Her Graham animates the film with a touching, human story rather than the painstaking recreation of important events. What Homer Simpson said about Poochie applies doubly to The Post: Whenever Streep’s Katherine Graham isn’t onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, “Where’s Katharine Graham?”
Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game (★★★½), the loosest, jazziest of this crop, runs no risk of losing sight of its trump card. The movie’s white-hot star, Jessica Chastain, is dead-center almost every second in the stylish, typically fast walking-and-talking Sorkin take on historical fiction.
Based on the showbiz-tinged memoir by poker game promoter Molly Bloom, Sorkin’s first feature film as director has the lightning immediacy of exciting theater. As Molly’s tale darts by, the stakes change, the tables change, and the players — from Michael Cera’s oddly menacing movie star to Chris O’Dowd’s endearing lovesick loser — also change.
Yet, Chastain, with excellent support from Idris Elba as Molly’s lawyer, solidly anchors a stranger-than-fiction drama that starts to spin out of control, even before a pointless star turn by Kevin Costner nearly derails the film’s third act. The movie steps on its own message ushering The Bodyguard in to tell the heroine what her problems are and how to solve them. Still, Molly and Chastain walk away holding all the cards.
Molly’s Game is not the season’s best biographical motion picture — perhaps none of these are as singular an achievement as I, Tonya. But most likely, both Game and Tonya will land both of their leading ladies a seat at a table where the winner takes all.
All the Money in the World, The Disaster Artist, Molly’s Game, The Greatest Showman, and The Post are currently playing at area theaters. For tickets, visit fandango.com.
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