Friday, February 9, 2018

All the Money in the World and Phantom Thread: Another Planet

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World.

All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s movie about the 1973 kidnapping of sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III – known as Paul – garnered considerable attention when, following the sexual harassment claims against Kevin Spacey, Scott replaced him with Christopher Plummer in the key role of Getty Sr., Paul’s grandfather – considered in his time to be the wealthiest man in the history of the world – and re-edited the movie at the eleventh hour. But the movie died at the box office anyway, and that’s a real shame because it’s a first-rate psychological study. In the opening voice-over, Paul (Charlie Plummer) begs us to forgive the behavior of his family because, he explains, they’re rich and the rich live on another planet. Hollywood has turned out many cautionary fables over the years that present the very rich as embodiments of the American dream gone sour. (Perhaps the latest famous example is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.) David Scarpa, who wrote the screenplay for All the Money in the World (based on John Pearson’s book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty), takes a different approach: he depicts extreme wealth, wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams, as a pathology. Plummer’s J. Paul Getty may be a supporting part – the main characters are Paul’s desperate mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has to fight to get her ex-father-in-law to agree to pay her son’s ransom, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-CIA man whom Getty dispatches to negotiate with the kidnapers – but he’s at the heart of the film. And Plummer hovers over even the parts of the movie he’s not in, the way Brando hovered over The Godfather even during the many scenes when he wasn’t on screen. Plummer, who turned eighty-eight right around the time the picture was released, gives a performance that deserves to become legendary. We’ll never know what Spacey brought to the part, but when you watch Plummer you can’t imagine why Scott cast Spacey in the first place; it seems as if he’d be completely wrong for it.

When the movie starts, in the mid-sixties, Getty II (Andrew Buchan) is estranged from his father, who, he says, has always been disappointed in him. But he and his family are barely getting by, so Gail persuades him to write the old man at his house in Rome and ask for help. To his surprise, Getty Sr. offers him a job. But the move to Rome is a disaster. Getty II is an alcoholic; Paul informs us in voice-over that the first time someone offered his dad drugs at a party he was  lost. He begins to move, or more accurately to vegetate, in druggy celebrity circles (he hangs out with the Stones); there’s a creepily  evocative scene, perhaps only a minute long, where the little boy wanders through a room that wouldn’t be out of place in Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu and finds his father passed out, naked, next to a young woman in the same state. Gail eventually gets fed up and leaves. She wins custody of the kids by making it her only stipulation in the divorce settlement, though Paul is pissed at her for pulling him away from the glamorous life in Rome. And that’s where he is, years later, visiting, when the kidnappers pick him up; Charlie Plummer’s best moment is just before he’s taken, when Paul strolls past  some streetwalkers and suggests, with the charm of an adolescent whose confidence is bolstered by being around money, that they should give him a discount on account of his age.

Gail has no money and her ex is hopeless, so when she’s hit with a ransom demand she has no choice but to call on her former father-in-law. J. Paul Getty is so remote from his son in the early days of his marriage to Gail that when he takes him in unexpectedly, and shows a special affection for little Paul, pressing a priceless artifact on him as if it were a toy, his sudden family feeling is suspicious; we wonder if it’s just a passing phase, like a new hobby. But Getty isn’t faddish or impulsive. His new-found interest in his son and especially his grandson comes from a conviction that they’re extensions of him, and when Gail gains custody of his grandchildren he can’t forgive her (as we find out later) – he feels she’s robbed him. Getty’s brand of narcissism  is peerlessly strange – he really does seem like he occupies his own planet. Plummer plays him from the inside, with so much ease that when we see him indulging in his quirks, like hanging up his own freshly washed clothes in a hotel room to save money, we experience a disjunction between our recognition of the weirdness of his actions and his effortless comfort in them. Plummer constantly makes us check our responses, as if it’s we who missed a step somewhere – even when he argues with Chase that though his fortune is at its highest peak, he can’t afford to float the cash for the ransom because his financial holdings are at their most vulnerable. His priorities sound insane because they don’t reflect any human dimension, but he explains them as if he’s the only one with reason on his side: when he won’t pay the ransom, he argues (to the press) that since he has fourteen grandchildren, he’d be setting himself up to let kidnapers bleed him dry. And at the bottom of his thinking is an addiction to bargains so extreme that it’s maniacal. When Gail comes up with the inspiration to sell the artifact he gave Paul on their first meeting she discovers that it’s worthless – a fake. God knows why he ever collected it, but when he used it to buy his grandson’s devotion, he knew he could get away with pretending it was worth millions without actually having to tell the truth: another bargain.

The ensemble is strong, including Romain Duris as Cinquanta, whose job is to take care of Paul while he’s being held hostage and whose fondness for him rescues him on more than one occasion, though he can’t stop him from losing an ear when the impatient kidnappers get tired of waiting for Getty to come up with the money. (One of the movie’s many ironies is that Quintana behaves with more humanity toward the kid than his grandfather does.) Williams acts with feeling but she’s a little – surprisingly – actorish, though perhaps that’s a side effect of a too-theatrical vocal choice. Wahlberg, as is often the case, gets his effects so simply that his authenticity in the part has been underrated. Fletcher Chase is the linchpin in the story: at first he’s sympathetic to Getty’s point of view because he finds it eminently practical, but when a body turns up and the Roman  police think (erroneously, and stupidly) that it’s Paul’s, he undergoes a transformation and winds up as Gail’s ally instead of his boss’s. Paul gets away from his kidnappers just as the head of the syndicate that’s bought him from the original gang has ordered his murder, so the plot ends happily. Except that we know it didn’t – that John Paul Getty III never recovered from the trauma of being kidnapped at sixteen and having his ear hacked off and became a drug addict just like his father. He made it back alive to his mother but the pathology of wealth doomed him in the end.

Daniel Day-Lewis (and Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread.

I have to give Paul Thomas Anderson this: his movies are always bad – at least since Boogie Nights, which at least had a good first half – but they’re all bad in different ways. Phantom Thread is a melodrama, his first, about a Balenciaga-like dress designer (Daniel Day Lewis) with the hilarious name of Reynolds Woodcock, a brooding, self-indulgent artist-couturier who picks up a waitress named Alma (Vicki Krieps) and makes her his chief model, his lover and finally his wife. Anderson is remaking Rebecca here but with a twist: instead of growing up from a self-denigrating waif into the helpmate who pulls her aristocratic husband out of himself and aids him in laying the ghost of his first wife – in this movie it’s his long-dead mother – Alma turns out to be even crazier than he is. This might be fun in the hands of a young Almodóvar, but Anderson is the last person who should be working in the realm of melodrama because he approaches it with deadly seriousness. The movie has no juice. Even the Mrs. Danvers character, Reynolds’s sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), isn’t very lively.

Common sense is in short supply in Anderson’s movies, so it shouldn’t be a shock that the characters’ behavior doesn’t scan. It took me a while to realize that Reynolds and Alma were sleeping together, because there’s zero erotic chemistry between them: Lewis is so prissy in the role that I figured we were supposed to think he’s gay, and behind her rather sweet smile Krieps is insipid. Cyril comes across as a tiger lady protecting her brother – perhaps more Gale Sondergaard in The Letter than Judith Anderson in Rebecca – but then she has a sudden change of attitude and takes Alma’s side when Reynolds considers dumping her. The way Alma holds onto Reynolds is pretty funny, but the movie doesn’t play it as comic, and his cowed, satisfied reaction, which is clearly meant to be read in Freudian terms, doesn’t work on the basic level of narrative logic. I had the same problem with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: you can see how you’re intended to interpret the interactions of the characters, but it’s impossible to buy the idea that anyone would act as they do, so the movie is like a psychological treatise on beings from some other planet.

The oddest element in Phantom Thread is that the dresses (designed by Mark Bridges) are so unappealing – heavy and stiff, each wearing its expensiveness like a placard in a department store window. The cinematography (by Anderson himself, uncredited) is beautiful, however, and there’s one exquisitely staged sequence where Reynolds stops at a New Year’s Eve dance at a local hotel to bring Alma home. It’s the one scene in the movie that possesses the grandeur of Anderson’s 1940s Hollywood models. Otherwise it’s hopeless and pointlessly affected, like a Todd Haynes movie without the irony.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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