by Philip Price
Despite Christopher Plummer’s J.P. Gettty very clearly being the antagonist in director Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” the film also seems aware that this is very much a complex character that holds more substance and conflict than what might otherwise be optioned to be portrayed as the straight-up villain of the piece. That said, Scott will often play to the dark comedy of how much of a penny-pincher the richest man in the history of the world was. Such is true when the director will set-up a scene with the intention of making the audience think one thing only to pull the rug out from under them a moment later; Getty not actually bargaining on the cost of the ransom, but rather on that of an otherwise invaluable painting for example. This technique emphasizes the relationship, the fondness, the affinity Getty has for his money in a movie that is about his refusal to fork over untold millions for something that might offer a greater relationship or something he has a greater fondness and a greater affinity for: his grandson. This again may make Plummer’s Getty out to sound like the obvious villain of “All the Money in the World,” but there are lessons to be learned-even from those who might not be the most sincere or honest people in the room. Getty might not have always even been the smartest person in the room at any given time for he himself says that any fool can “get” rich, but there is always a strategy or plan in place with Getty-an ability to read the room and/or any offer that came across his desk-that paints this portrait of a man who isn’t being let off the hook for his misplacement of priorities in life (it’s hard to read if the man might have even had any regrets in his final moments when it came to realizing all he had were things and no one in particular that cared about him that he could leave all of his things to), but rather is being conveyed just as he was which was anything but complicated-the man seemed to have a very strict code of conduct-but is all the more complicated for applying that code to every aspect of life. After all, Getty likely could have cared less what anyone thought of him given the power such wealth afforded him. This all brings the conversation back around to that golden rule of he who has the gold makes the rules and in the case of “All the Money in the World” and the narrative it encapsulates, Getty never takes his hands off the wheel. Thank God for Christopher Plummer.
For the record, director Ridley Scott is 80. His birthday was last month and this month, just a few days ago, his second film of 2017 hit theaters. Not only this, but the force of nature director made the decision just over a month ago to completely re-shoot all the scenes in “All the Money in the World” that featured the J.P. Getty character as originally portrayed by Kevin Spacey with that of Plummer's performance. In an amazing turn of events, Scott was able to re-shoot all Spacey's scenes in a matter of nine days and while it may initially cause one to think that Spacey's involvement might have been minimal this is what makes the turn around even more incredible. Not only is Getty a large part of the films arc, but he shares scenes with co-leads Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg thus forcing those actors to have to come back at a moment's notice to re-shoot entire scenes that they'd already done months if not nearly a year prior. How Scott and his team handled the continuity is beyond me because the biggest accomplishment of “All the Money in the World” is the fact that if you had no idea about this behind-the-scenes controversy then you would have no idea anything was off with the picture at all. There is a single moment in a scene where Getty visits the desert and we can see that shots of Spacey's Getty were still utilized, and that Plummer's face has been digitally imposed on a wide shot rather than having been re-shot, but these are things to be noticed only if you're looking for them. Otherwise, the biggest detracting factor of the edits from scenes originally shot for the film and those that were shot a month ago is that of the length of Wahlberg's hair-which, of course-isn't a deal breaker. The real revelation to come out of all of this if one does go into the film knowing the behind-the-scenes drama is that of how effective Plummer is in his role. Whether it was the way the trailer played it or that of Spacey's truly different take on the character, Getty originally felt like less the star of the show and more the catalyst for the actions that forced Williams and Wahlberg's main characters into the main thread of the action. Whatever pre-conceived notions the Spacey trailer might have given potential audiences can be swept under the rug as Plummer is a crucial part of the mindset of this film and pushes the narrative themes forward with each scene he appears and with each action he takes within those scenes. The film is based on the true story of the 1973 kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and the desperate attempt by his mother, Gail (Williams), to convince his billionaire grandfather (Plummer) to pay the ransom. When Getty Sr. refuses, Gail attempts to sway him as well as come up with the money herself as her son’s captors become increasingly volatile and brutal. As a result, Gail and Getty’s advisor, Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg), become unlikely allies in the race against time that ultimately reveals this lasting value of love over money.
With a screenplay by David Scarpa, “All the Money in the World” only makes you think it is a kidnapping/race against time thriller, but in all honesty, this is a movie about Getty Sr. that has chosen to focus on what ultimately comes to be the last few years of his life as condensed for dramatic purposes. Up until the end, Getty is a man constantly surrounded by parasites-this extending to his family that includes his grandson's father, his son, in John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) who reaches out to his father, a man he's never had any relationship with, for a job that he is granted and ultimately ends up fumbling because he becomes addicted to drugs. This is undoubtedly one of the many reasons Getty Sr. is a man who must be in control otherwise he loses this edge that he’s been able to maintain his entire adult life that has therefore allowed him to keep himself in this position of wealth and power. Getty doesn't take risks outside of his calculated business ones to not stand the chance of being threatened. It makes sense as to why he reacts to the news and ransom of the kidnapping of his grandson the way he does, no matter the admittedly special place Paul held in his heart. To oblige would be to give in and to give in would be to give way for those to earn the same lifestyle he had to work to obtain. What is interesting about the events that were chosen to be depicted in “All the Money in the World” though, is that this set of circumstances seems the first time Getty had to truly contemplate if the money was worth the loss of this blood relative he’d once invested so much hope in. Of course, money is never just money and typically stands in for something this person behind the wealth doesn't have or, so Wahlberg's Chase tells Williams's Gail shortly after they are introduced to one another. Though Scarpa nor Scott seem to necessarily be interested in what it is behind the facade that makes Getty Sr. tick, but more the facade itself the film can't help but to give over to such ponderings thanks in large part to Plummer's layered performance. There is a scene in the film where Getty Sr. discusses the difference in getting rich and being rich and it is in this gray area that Plummer seems to zero in on bringing out his character's mentality in each action. "Any fool can get rich," Getty advises, but it is the remaining rich, the "being" rich that takes a sophisticated mind. It seems Plummer's Getty Sr. wanted very much for his grandson to grasp this difference in "getting" and "being", but such ideas are never followed through on as they weren't of Scott's initial intent. Rather, “All the Money in the World” quickly devolves into that race against time thriller that is still very much an interesting, well-acted, and great-looking movie, but beyond this it is never compelling in the way it feels it is meant to be.
That said, all the performers here are at the top of their game as Williams is especially present in her role as Gail-a scene where she is required to identify a body standing out as the pinnacle of her performance. Wahlberg is more restrained here than we have seen him in some time. It may be that the actor's last few performances have been so in your face mister tough guy with “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriot's Day,” ‘Transformers’ and “Daddy's Home 2,” but whether it is because Chase is a different type of personality or Wahlberg is trying out something different, the performance hits the right notes-allowing for Wahlberg to show his bread and butter in a pivotal scene near the end of the film. The younger Plummer, Charlie that is, is notable in his rather thankless role despite being the subject of nearly every action that is taken in the film. Having met the young actor a few years back at a screening of his film, “King Jack,” it was clear the kid had good, natural instincts and, so it was no surprise when he ended up on the short list for potential Peter Parker's/Spider-Man's in what would eventually become “Homecoming.” With this and another festival darling this year, Andrew Haigh's “Lean on Pete,” though it seems Plummer is destined for his own strong path and he begins paving that by turning in a performance that grants sympathy to a character who very much could have been simply served by anyone embodying the trials and tribulations John Paul Getty III had to endure while being held captive by the Calabrian Mafia for more than five months. What saves such sequences is the fact Plummer is given someone else to play off and whether Romain Duris's Cinquanta character is fictional or not it was both a smart move on the part of Scarpa to include or create such a character as Duris's performance comes to serve as the most surprising and enlightening of the whole picture. Cinquanta is a character that begins the film as another crony in the kidnapping scheme, but is the first to show the victim his face, to risk getting to know him by conversing with him, and ultimately who comes to feel pity for this privileged boy who could have had the world were his childhood and role models not been so dysfunctional. While Wahlberg and especially Williams are the characters we follow on the main mission it is Cinquanta that has the biggest arc in the film and the one that is something of a conduit for the audience to understand the ever-changing dynamic between Getty III and his captor. What develops between Cinquanta and the young Getty is a pure connection as both have more to lose than they must gain by feeling sorry for one another and it is this exact type of relationship that Getty Sr. seemed to only find in beautiful things, but never in other human beings. A shame to be sure, but also a shame is the fact “All the Money in the World” can't help but feel as detached as Getty Sr. despite a minefield of ideas and themes laid out before it.
by Philip Price
The story of Tonya Harding is one of a true American tragedy. Tonya Harding is America. She is unapologetic for the way she was raised and is seemingly either embraced or rejected immediately. She is emblematic of America's tendencies to always need someone to laugh at, a necessary punchline to fool ourselves into believing we're better than something or someone despite the outward appearance of wanting to be welcoming and tolerant of all walks of life. “I, Tonya” is a portrait of this single woman's life that would seem the perfect vehicle for a rags to riches story, the kind of story America typically likes to celebrate and champion in showing how much we, the people, promote this idea of advancement and the improvement of one's status through nothing other than hard work, but in the case of Harding we get the opposite: a life of nurturing that was anything but; where every person wanted a piece of the only beacon of light and hope in their lives while punching her down to feel better about themselves rather than pull her up. Tonya worked hard her whole life-devoted every fiber of her being to this passion (which is something it seems no one in her life, except for maybe her mother, would question the hyperbole of or dispute), but no matter how hard she dared work she was never a match for the fact her image was not that of who the skating world desired to represent them. It is these constant battles, the ones that cause people, relatives, coaches, to ask, "Why are you the way that you are?" that come to define exactly who Tonya Harding was and no doubt still is. She is a real human being who dared to have the right amount of balls to not be defined by a sport that never wanted her, but that she couldn't do without. Her relationship with figure skating being indicative of every other relationship Harding would have in her life; passionate, but flawed. Complicated being an understatement. And sure, there are two sides to every story, of course, but in the case of “I, Tonya” there are multiple sides to her story and to the event that came to define her life and who she was in the public eye. It is in this examination of how Harding is forced and mostly refuses to balance herself between the world she is from and the world she is meant to be a part of that serves as the crux of what director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and writer Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats”) are attempting to say while Harding herself and all her story represents just happen to be the perfect, searing tragic vehicle for such a theme.
From the opening moment of Gillespie's film, we know what we're in for. There is no trepidation as to what “I, Tonya” is, there is no first act that establishes and settles the audience into the type of film this is as the film itself figures those things out. No, from the word "go" “I, Tonya” is assured of itself in a fashion most films can only dream of being. “I, Tonya” is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but it is also conveyed through the lens of a black comedy and how could it not be? It evaluates the audience by asking if America is as virtuous as all upstanding citizens would like to believe while laughing in those people's faces by essentially flaunting the more cut-throat, opportunistic side of our great country. “I, Tonya” shows you the kind of people on America's backburner-the type of people that are never invited to be on the covers of magazines or as a representative of a group or company-and puts them on full display. The movie cops to the fact there are reasons these people have been put on the backburner, whether it be for behavior that is largely labeled as socially unacceptable or economic reasons and it finds a kind of sadistic glee in exploiting their shortcomings (or perceived shortcomings), but this is all done in a constituted effort to paint the broader picture of the cavern Harding had to straddle to feel comfortable in who she was while accomplishing what she could. There is no doubt ever given to Harding's talent and the film in turn works hard, but makes it feel effortless, when showing the audience how inherent this skill was to this individual. Introduced as the fifth child from husband number four for Lavona Harding (a ruthless Allison Janney) we are given the impression that there was never a choice for Harding other than to skate. At a "soft four" Tonya's mother takes her to meet local ice skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who is hesitant to train someone so young, but who recognizes the natural talent and, six months later, has her winning competitions at that young age. The driving beat of Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman" serving as the backdrop for this opening exposition that positions Harding as the exception to the rule; a skater who was always meant to stand out rather than fit into whatever version of a woman the judges wanted her to be. Through the powers of fantastic editing, a handful of incredible performances and Rogers' screenplay made up of, "irony free, wildly contradictory, and totally true interviews" with Harding and her now ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), “I, Tonya” becomes a culmination of these multiple accounts and varying perceptions that paints a portrait of this tragic characters tragic arc making you not only care about Tonya Harding, but sympathize with her.
The very first shot of the film comes courtesy of these mockumentary-like interviews that Gillespie uses to frame these events and features the gorgeous Margot Robbie frumped-up into looking like Harding via 1996 as she rocks her denim jacket and sits alone in what is presumably her kitchen smoking a cigarette. She looks not unlike her mother in her interviews save for the bird that is regularly perched on Lavona's shoulder as she spouts defenses about her daughter's raising and the bigger price she paid of having to make her daughter despise her to push her to her full potential rather than ever apologizing for the acts she seemed to so frequently be called out for. This introduces that weird dichotomy that exists between parents of kids who the parents know are exceptional and who are willing to push them to the point they will eventually and inevitably resent them, but also stand a better chance of succeeding. Look at the history books: Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson, and countless others who have dealt with the question of, would Harding have traded her abusive childhood for a more normal upbringing in exchange for the success she would come to experience on the ice? Of course, while the likes of Jackson and Wilson experienced true victories in their professional lives, even if the cracks of that fractured upbringing began to show through eventually for each, Harding wasn't ever really afforded much more than becoming the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel. Lavona abused and scared her daughter into becoming an exemplary skater and while much of her childhood and even into her formative years are rough beyond measure there was always the rink where Harding could seemingly escape to. This inherently damaged state of mind almost inevitably leads to an alternative way of thinking and approaching things that in turn produces what allowed Harding to prosper on the rare occasion she did; rage making her a better performer on the ice, for example. This question of if Harding will ever be able to have her cake and eat it too is one biopics such as this tend to try to answer, but with “I, Tonya” we know the answer to this question before we even sit down to watch the movie. We know there is no hope, there is no reprieve from being the white trash figure skater that had to resort to below the belt tactics to try and win rather than to do so with the style, grace, and dignity everyone above her social class always assumed she lacked anyway. This is a story where the odds are stacked against our protagonist on both sides and her only defense, when she does fail, has blame cast upon her, or makes the wrong or ill-advised choice, is that of, “It wasn’t my fault.” Nothing is ever Harding's fault and herein lies the genius of “I, Tonya.” There is a lot of stuff where that question of, "Why are you the way that you are?" would apply to Tonya's actions, but the moment we're all here for (which the film hilariously acknowledges), the moment of Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) getting her knee bashed in comes to pass as an event Harding herself was hardly aware of. A blip on the radar of her life in that moment making the ultimate consequences Harding pays for these actions she's only tangentially connected to that much more devastating.
By baiting the viewer with these hilarious, almost caricature-like people in the beginning Gillespie knows what he's doing as the arc of Rogers script comes to be that of making the audience realize they are the judges in the least metaphorical way possible. We are the judges because we immediately judge these people or make assumptions about them because of their seeming intelligence level, their line of work, their use of language, their lack of respect for a system that never let them in, etc. but as the film carries on and the viewer comes to care about these characters and, again, sympathize with them-specifically Harding herself-we come to realize these are real people with real emotions and that we despise those judges, the people we were acting like, for denying a girl a dream she deserves based solely on her parent's income and her choice to skate to classic rock rather than classic Bach. When a movie can not only be relentlessly entertaining, but also make one aware of something within themselves there is something to be said for its power and power of persuasiveness. This may not be a reaction for all, maybe I'm just an asshole who was taught a lesson watching a movie about Tonya Harding, but I find it hard to believe that there won't be more people than not laughing at these characters for the first hour before realizing that what comes to pass is a result of years of abuse and patterns in behavior that have come to dictate the only life our protagonist knows and therefore knows no better. Like I said, it's truly tragic.
And nothing highlights this tragedy more so than Harding's relationship with Stan's Gillooly. Gillooly was both the first-person Harding went out on a date with while also being the guy that turned this first romance into another abusive relationship in Harding's long-line of physically and mentally abusive relationships. As Gillooly, Stan disappears into the role and becomes this person entirely, a person who can't stand to be without this woman, but when he's around her-can't stand the woman she is. It is in the case of Harding and Gillooly's relationship and eventual marriage that Harding does the rare thing of taking the blame. Her mom hit her, and her mom still loved her, why was it any different with Jeff who would apologize with empty promises every time it happened? If this was such a recurring theme in her life it must have something to do with her and not everyone around her, right? Robbie is a revelation in her titular role, physically and psychologically, as she walks this line of a woman prescribing to what she wants to be, having no shame in who she is, and the dynamics produced from each with those in her life on either side of the line. It is multiple cadences throughout varying degrees of a life as Robbie portrays Harding from the age of fifteen up through about twenty-four, in the aftermath of the Kerrigan incident and through to the candid interviews. Janney steals every scene she's in as she gets the showiest role of the bunch, while the MVP of the film is Paul Walter Hauser's Shawn Eckhardt who is so delusional as to think we're indebted to him because his first instinct was to advise Gillooly against dating Harding therefore preventing anything that happened and anyone from talking about them today; as if the path that was taken was the preferable one. Honestly, Hauser should get a supporting actor nomination for his work here right alongside Lil Rel Howery. There are shortcomings, of course, but the most glaring of such is that of the pacing and tightness of tone that lags somewhat in the middle section, but that the film recovers from so well in the third act it is hard to hold against it. “I, Tonya” is a movie that plays to all its strengths in terms of the type of movie the story of Tonya Harding was always meant to be, but that it makes sense out of this fascinating cultural event and figure is where the film really excels; allowing its unconventional approach to set the record straight on someone whose ambitions were always cut short by other presumptions.