Whatever else can be said about the whole sordid situation, it's great for All the Money in the World that Kevin Spacey had to be dumped and replaced by Christopher Plummer, because Plummer's performance is absolutely the best thing about the movie and possibly the solitary factor that nudges it across the thin, bright line separating "yeah, might as well see it" from "eh, don't bother". Add in the very well-publicised* speed with which that replacement happened, in only about one month prior to the film's wide release, and which is completely invisible in the final project, from an editing standpoint, and Plummer's achievement is all the more impressive (and so is the achievement of editor Claire Simpson, and the post-production color team led by Stephen Nakamura, but the entertainment press never gives love to the post team).

The rest of the movie is okay enough that I'm happy to declare All the Money to be the best Ridley Scott film of 2017, which I point out mostly because it gives me a chance to needle Alien: Covenant one last time, and not because it says anything about the enormously middle-of-the-road, neither-here-nor-there middlebrow emptiness of our current subject. It suffers from a simply godawful opening act that lays out the film's backstory in the most peculiar, chronologically disordered, and aesthetically unedifying fashion, but muscling past that, it leaves a fairly satisfactory kidnapping thriller, in those moments when it has no greater aims than being a kidnapping thriller. Because it certainly does have other ambitions as well, and it tends to significantly fuck those up.

The plot is based on a real event, with some abnormally large changes (of which the most evident and eye-brow raising is a spoiler involving the death dates of historical persons), but the core of it is true enough: in July 1973, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, not related to Christopher) is kidnapped in Rome. The kidnappers demand a ransom of $17 million from his mother, Gail Harris Getty (Michelle Williams), the ex-wife of John Paul Getty, Jr. (Andrew Buchan), who is herself quite broke. However, she's also the ex-daughter-in-law of none other than J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the wealthiest man in the world, and "Little Paul" is his favorite grandchild. But instead of lendeing her the money for the ransom, Getty the Eldest makes a point of appearing on television to clarify that he will pay not one solitary penny. He does, however, provide his chief negotiator, Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) to join Gail in Rome to help get the boy back, as cheaply as possible, to the horrified amazement of both the mother and the kidnappers themselves, primarily embodied in the form of the increasingly guilt-stricken "Cinquanta" (Roman Duris).

All the Money in the World is at its best when it does one of two things, at the opposite ends of its spectrum. One of these, I've mentioned, is to simply place Christopher Plummer in front of us, and allowing us to bask in his excellent portrayal of Getty, who is her presented as a self-amused villain, a mixture of the shrewdness and penny-pinch of an Ebeneezer Scrooge with the "ain't I a stinker?" self-awareness of a Bugs Bunny. There's a crinkly look of warm, grandfatherly amusement around Plummer's eyes, and his mouth perpetually twitches up in a not-quite smile. It's absolutely nothing like Spacey's approach to the same moments, as revealed in the handful of shots and line deliveries available in the film's old trailer, and all to the character's benefit: even if the film is hellbent on demonstrating that extravagant, almost mythological levels of wealth inherently warp and break people, Getty obviously wouldn't think of himself that way, and Plummer's portrayal of the character as a man who thinks he's funny, likable, warm, and wise, while jovially negotiating with the people who hold his grandson's life in their hands, is vastly more enjoyable and interesting than a straightforward "I'm a chilly asshole" approach.

The portrayal of Getty is central to the film's confused argument about having all the money in the world: it's kind of sad how much the movie supposes itself to be a probing inquiry into the question Little Paul presents in the opening voiceover - how do people like the Gettys, fundamentally mutated into something inhuman by their position and privilege, negotiate an essentially human tragedy? - given how inconsistent and bad it is at following through. David Scarpa's script, adapted from John Person's Painfully Rich, veers all over the place like a drunk driver, sometimes spelling out the themes of the film in annoyingly straightforward lines, sometimes leaving them implied, sometimes abandoning that line of reason altogether. Characters have motivations that flicker on and off, mysteries are raised and then answered with the solution to other mysteries, incomprehensible wealth is presented as both moral poison and the sexiest thing imaginable, at times even in the same scene.

So the other thing that works in the film is when it abandons all that, and commits to being nothing but a posh kidnapping thriller set in the halls of elite power. Scott, throughout his career, has suffered from the problem of wanting to make really classy dramas, when what he's best at, from Alien to Alien: Covenant, is the stuff of gritty genre filmmaking. Accordingly, All the Money does best when he focuses on the nuts and bolts of the kidnapping and negotiation processes. Fletcher is not a great character nor does Wahlberg do much to make him interesting, but he is a great mechanism for the film to channel its procedural elements through. And while Gail isn't a great character either, Williams puts a hell of a lot into her to bring a level of human emotion to the brittle cold of the rest of the movie, suitably depicting the all-consuming dread of a desperate mother, but also bringing in a fair decree of sarcastic, cynical irritation at how little any of what happens in the film surprises her.

At it's best, the film is at least snappy and watchable; at its worst, it's meandering and bloated Oscarbait, confident that it has something to say but never quite getting around to saying it. The mixture favors the watchable parts, though a sluggish, underscripted and overly-talky scene is never too far away. And the whole thing is regrettably unattractive, with the typically reliable Dariusz Wolski (working with Scott for the sixth time) leaning on a soft, beigey visual scheme that I think is meant to evoke '70s film stock, but is much too obviously digital for that to be the case. And the music, including original compositions by Daniel Pemberton andΒ  a grab-bag of period rock songs, is irritatingly omnipresent and unsubtle, in addition to sometimes being tonally out-of-place.

So, mostly right in the middle, neither good nor bad, but a little too accomplished in a few too many ways to dismiss it as total mediocrity. It's worth it for Plummer, and for the bits where it works as a thriller, but when it has been forgotten by all but the Scott completionists in a year or two, there will be no real loss to the world of cinephilia.

*So well-publicised that my 94-year-old grandmother, who didn't know a new Star Wars had come out in 2017, asked "Isn't that the one where they had to replace Kevin Spacey?" when I mentioned to her that I was seeing it.