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If your teenage grandson was kidnapped, how much money would you be willing to pay to get him back alive? For J. Paul Getty, once the richest private citizen in the world, the answer was nothing. To the demanded ransom—$17 million—Getty snorted, “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Getty gained more fame for that cold stinginess than for his immense wealth.
All the Money in the World tells the true story of the 1973 kidnapping, but the film is really about Getty (a magnetic Christopher Plummer). With dark humor the film depicts Getty as a stinking-rich billionaire who obsessively watches the stock market, plays chess against himself, and washes his own clothes in hotels because he is too cheap to pay $10 for laundry service.
“Everything has a price,” the movie’s billionaire tells his grandson (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher). “Everything in life is coming to grips with what it is.” Then his grandson disappears, and by refusing to pay the ransom the senior Getty makes clear to the public his value of his grandson’s life. (He later agrees to pay just $2.2 million, the maximum tax-deductible amount.) The film doesn’t dig much into what kind of effect that had on the younger Getty (in real life, his subsequent drug and alcohol addiction left him a partially blind quadriplegic), but it does show how it affected the Getty patriarch, whom we see dying alone while clutching a rare Madonna-and-Child painting for which he paid $1.7 million. “I like things,” he says at one point. “They are exactly what they appear to be.”
The film is suspenseful and riveting and includes a gruesome ear-slicing scene that earns the movie an R rating (along with foul language and drug content). But it’s foremost a tragedy about a man with all the money in the world who destroyed himself and his family because of it.