“All the Money in the World” and “Molly’s Game” treat us to great stories and performances.
Christopher Plummer has played so many memorable roles. I mean, The Sound of Music! But here’s a question. As a spry 88-year-old, has the British master ever been better than he is in All the Money in the World? We see actor and role come together in perfect harmony. Embodying John Paul Getty under the direction of Ridley Scott, Plummer is Getty. This film was made for him to shine in. Conversely, thanks to Plummer, Ridley has made one of the best movies of the year.
Of course, none of this is exactly true. Or maybe it is, but only thanks to circumstances, Kevin Spacey’s taste for underage boys, and a risky experiment by Scott and Sony Pictures.
The story mostly focuses on that unhappiest of episodes in the life of Getty, an extremely wealthy oil magnate and arts patron. When his grandson, John Paul Getty III, is being kidnapped in 1973 in Italy, the question for Getty, spending his time in England, is whether he will pay the ransom requested. The entire film is built around this question. I won’t answer it, but I will say that Scott and Plummer, with expert help from a great supporting cast — Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams, and Charlie Plummer — have created a thing of beauty.
Of course, we know Scott can create tension and weave narratives like few others. Like Plummer, this determined Welshman has been working on terrific films for decades. From Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down to The Martian: every single one is original and recognizable as a Scott movie.
All the Money in the World is a quieter film. No bombs go off, no spaceships collide this time. That means a master like Plummer has room to take over, once he was brought on board to replace Spacey. Plummer does so with a vengeance. He exposes brilliantly how great wealth can corrupt greatly — the moral corruption of a supremely rich man, in this film, is both breathtaking and thought-provoking.
What I saw in early December was still a rough cut. The 25 scenes with Getty in it — some long and complex — had only recently been re-shot with Plummer after Spacey was sacked. It has gotten better since. This film will deserve every nomination and award it can get in the coming months.
It’s also impossible to separate it from the sea change going on in Hollywood. One question it begs is whether the #MeToo movement will lead to change. I think the change is already happening. No actress, no female director or producer or writer, no woman on a crew working today would tolerate anything like the abuse perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. Meanwhile, young men and women entering the industry are still going to be vulnerable to abuse. For them it will be good news that a predator like Spacey is gone. I never understood the wild admiration for him; he was a good actor but also a thoroughly unpleasant man, I thought.
Now we know this is very much true. We also know that the supposedly great Spacey could be replaced easily, as Scott has said. In fact, having seen Plummer in this thrilling hostage drama it’s impossible to imagine the film without him. I’m not generally for erasing history. In this case, making Spacey disappear has been an act of kindness for young actors who won’t have to deal with him anymore, and for film lovers who get to enjoy the work of Mr. Plummer in peak form.
Similarly, Jessica Chastain has rarely shone brighter than she does in Molly’s Game. The directorial debut of famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is mind-blowing, and the casting once again proves to be the key. Sorkin can write dialogue like no one else. He can tell a story with wit and intelligence: A Few Good Men and Moneyball come to mind. We didn’t know whether he could helm a major motion picture with a similar result. With Chastain in the lead and Idris Elba by her side, both talking breathlessly for an hour and forty minutes, Sorkin now proves he can direct, too.
In the film Chastain plays Molly Bloom, whom we meet as a teenage girl with a talent for skiing with enough speed, determination, and courage to make the Olympics. Then she hits a tiny branch during a race, and the horrific crash nearly kills her. Her career is over. Now what?
The question may not be original, but the answer is. Based on the true story from the book by Bloom herself, Sorkin takes us on a wild ride as she elbows her way into high-stakes gambling in Los Angeles and then New York. She learns quickly as she works her way up in this semi-legal world of the very wealthy men whose only desire seems to be to waste huge sums of money at Molly’s invitation-only poker tables.
The perspective and timeline shift constantly: from Molly’s younger years to her legal troubles in the present (with Elba’s character Charlie Jaffey as her ever-skeptical New York lawyer) and some exciting events in the middle. In Chastain’s capable hands this character becomes a radiant sun in the universe she creates. The men trying to impress her, seduce her, or bring her down cannot compete.
With all due respect to Sorkin, who turns out to be a very good director, this is Chastain’s movie. Her lawyer, her father (Kevin Costner is quite good), and a sly top gambler (Michael Sera) exist to serve her story. This woman relies on her own wits to survive not just a skiing accident and her pushy psychologist father, but also the tricks of some of the richest men in America and the unfair New York legal system. It’s not a bad story to come out of Hollywood at the end of 2017.
All the Money in the World (rated R) opened Christmas Day. Molly’s Game (also rated R) is in select cities and will open nationwide Friday, January 5, 2018.