Greetings again from the darkness. The grandson of J Paul Getty, the wealthiest man in the world, was kidnapped while in Rome in 1973. That fascinating story holds more than enough drama for an engaging movie, and certainly did not need the notoriety or artistic challenges brought on by the Kevin Spacey scandal. With filming completed and a release date mere weeks away, director Ridley Scott made the decision to erase all evidence of Mr. Spacey’s J Paul Getty, and replace him with Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. The “do-over” is nearly seamless and it’s not a stretch to believe the second version turned out better than the first.
The precisely descriptive titled 1995 John Pearson book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty” is adapted by screenwriter David Scarpa, and it’s the storytelling instincts of Mr. Ridley, and remarkable acting of Mr. Plummer and Michelle Williams that keep us engaged for the 132 minute run time.
16 year old John Paul Getty III is played by rising star Charlie Plummer (“Boardwalk Empire”, no relation to Christopher), and though this is the story of his kidnapping and violent torture, the movie mostly focuses on the contrasting personalities of his devoted mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his miserly grandfather J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the wealthiest man in the world. She is a woman totally committed to her children while spurning the strings attached to family money. He, on the other hand, has devoted his life to money and winning, ignoring anything that might be construed as loyalty or compassion to family. With Mr. Plummer having just starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, this is just about the easiest transition an actor could hope for, given so little prep time for a new role.
The billionaire Getty refuses to pay the ransom, instead dispatching his security specialist Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate the boy’s release. As a former CIA operative, Chase misreads both the situation with the abductors and the strength and determination of Gail. We get periodic looks at the captors and the environment where the grandson is being held. Romain Duris (THE BEAT THAT MY HEAR SKIPPED) is excellent as Cinquanta, the captor who spends the most time with the boy. The “ear” scene is explicit enough to elicit groans and shrieks from the audience, so be advised.
“We are not like you” is what the younger Getty tells us as narrator, and he’s right. The ultra-rich live in a different world than you and I (assuming you aren’t one of “them”), and that’s never more clear than when the elder Getty explains his preference for things over people. While we never empathize with the rich miser, director Scott at least helps us understand what made him tick. To him, life was a negotiation and it’s all about winning – though his definition of winning could be debated.
The two octogenarians, Mr. Scott (80) and Mr. Plummer (88) work wonders with the outstanding Ms. Williams to make this a relatable story and captivating movie. The elder Getty died in 1976, two months to the day after Howard Hughes, while the grandson Getty had a massive drug overdose in 1981, and died in poor health in 2011, leaving behind his son, actor Balthazar Getty.
watch the trailer: