Two movies about bad rich people

The day after Christmas, my son and i went to the movies; the following day, my wife and I did. The movies we saw were not in the ‘big blockbuster’ category–no Star Wars, no Jumanji, though we will see both eventually–but we enjoyed them both very much. The first was All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott. The second was Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne. Good directors both, and interesting stories told, both, serendipitously about how much rich people suck.

All the Money was about the 1973 kidnapping of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer), grandson of J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), who was then the richest man in the world. (As I understand it, the two Plummers are not related). This movie gained some pre-release notoriety, as Kevin Spacey, initially cast as the elder Getty, was fired a month before the film opened, and all his scenes reshot with the elder Plummer in the role. That may have effected box office; I doubt it did much harm to the film. Christopher Plummer is superbly repellent as Getty.

The film depicts Getty as a monster, as a miserable miser, more interested in his art collection than in the lives of his family members. Actually, that’s not entirely true. In an early flashback, after many years of estrangement, we see him offering his son (Andrew Buchan), a high-paying executive job with Getty Oil, which opportunity the alcohol-and-drug saturated Getty makes nothing of. The old man doesn’t seem much surprised. But he does show an interest in his grandson, depicted as a bright, if somewhat lost young man. The one Getty who he does respect is Gail (Michelle Williams), his daughter-in-law. After the young Getty is kidnapped, the film turns into an extended duel (perhaps ‘negotiation’ is better), between Gail and J. Paul, with her insisting that ransom be paid, and the boy freed, with the old man insisting that paying one ransom will simply encourage other kidnappers. A fair point, we initially concede, but we soon realize that old Getty is simply staking out a negotiating position. He’ll pay the ransom, eventually, but first the asking price needs to move.

Doing the actual price negotiating is Getty’s top man, a former CIA agent named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). So the negotiations have a third party; Chase working with the kidnappers to get their price down, and with Getty Senior to get the money. The moment we realize what a consummate bastard the old man is is when we realize that he’ll only pay that amount of the ransom he can deduct from his American income taxes. Plus ςa change, plus c’est la mēme chose: Man, rich people hate paying taxes. Paul Ryan, meet Paul Getty.

Gail is the film’s most (only?) sympathetic character. The media were convinced that she was secretly wealthy, and that she was the one refusing to pay up. And her every public movement is followed by what appears to be a ravening pack of paparazzi. By the end of the movie, you may find yourself wishing someone would run the dang photographers over with a truck. Celebrity millionaires have to face that kind of thing, I suppose, but by the end of the film, we genuinely have lost all sympathy for the rich. It’s a stark, bleak movie, ultimately, though beautifully shot in all-natural light by Dariusz Wolski. Christopher Plummer’s face is always in shadow, emphasizing the character’s essential coldness. It’s a film I respected immensely, but did not much enjoy. That’s okay; it’s a powerful film.  I’ll let James, brother of Jesus have the final word:  “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl . . . Your riches are corrupted, and your garments motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you.” (james 5:1-3) 

The second film is surely one of the oddest movies of the year, and one that suffers, I think, by the misguided way in which it was marketed. Downsizing posits a future in which it’s possible to reduce human beings, on the molecular level (we’re told), to about five inches in height. You’re still yourself; there’s just a lot less of you. Personality and appearance untouched. And there are some advantages to it. Tiny people, obviously, leave a much smaller carbon footprint than larger folks do. So going small has some advantages from a ‘save the planet’ standpoint. But economically, it’s all win-win. You’re consuming less, so your consumer dollars stretch way further. So an average middle-class couple, liquidating all their assets–selling home and car, cashing in pensions–end up with the perquisites of comparative wealth. Our hero, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), end up in a mansion, millionaires, in a luxury resort for the tiny, Leisureland. The concept is a fun one, and the trailers suggest a satirical Matt Damon/Kristen Wiig romp. The film’s marketing team had a tough challenge, I expect, but the ads are misleading and it may hurt the film’s prospects.

What we’re left with is a genuine oddball, a Christian socialist parable, about inevitable environmental apocalypse, in which the world is saved (if it’s to be saved at all), by a colony of Norwegian hippies. (I always suspect that!) It never went anywhere anyone would expect, and yet my wife and I both liked it quite a bit.

One quibble; the economics don’t quite add up. I understand that the tiny eat less. But the film imagines an entire infrastructure in which everything we’re accustomed to using in our modern gadget-intensive lives has a tiny equivalent. Every gizmo, every do-dad; tea spoons and spatulas and scalpels, shoes and socks and shirts and slacks, everything. Plus, when Leisureland is explained to us, I thought ‘that mansion’s going to suck if you can’t hire someone else to clean it.’ Turns out, there is an underclass. And most of Leisureland’s cleaning and cooking is done by people with brown-hued skin, speaking, as their first language, Spanish. (Also, of course, Leisureland would be wiped out by your average housecat. They’re worried about birds? How about a puppy? Or raccoon?

Once Paul gets to Leisureland, the tone of the film turns bleaker. He does make a new friend; his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an aging Eurotrash party animal, who seems to have mysterious connections to the original Norwegian scientist who developed downsizing, and the original colony of Norwegian adventurers who were first to go through the procedure.

Paul also meets the film’s most compelling character, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese environmental activist who was forcibly downsized and put on a boat with 15 fellow troublemakers, only one of which, Ngoc, survived the trip. She lost a foot in that misadventure, and Paul, an occupational therapist, thinks he can help her. She works as a housecleaner, but spends her every waking hour scaring up food and meds for the most desperate members of the tiny people underclass. She’s also a committed Christian, with a Vietnamese Bible as her most cherished tradition–her ecstatic church services are the most exuberant scenes in the movie.

The film finally concludes this: if the world is going to end, well, meantime it’s our job to ease the suffering of the least fortunate among us. That’s also our obligation if the world isn’t going to end. It’s a maddening, inspiring film. Also, rich people suck. Also, ordinary people, if they suddenly become rich. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” said Paul of Tarsus to his disciple Timothy. So it turns out this movie has a Biblical moral to it as well.



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