Friday, April 19, 2024

‘Worth’ Miscalulates Its Drama

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How much is a human being worth? What is the value of a loved one’s life cruelly snuffed out in a blink of an unmerciful eye? You might not know-but insurance agents and lawyers have a nifty little formula that can help you find out.

Worth is about the 9/11 Fund. The act, H.R. 2926, The Airline Transportation Safety Stabilization Act, is historic in America. The Bush White House touted it as a way to try and compensate the bereaved for loved ones who lost their lives from the attack. However, Worth understands the real reason was that airlines were afraid of being sued.

Based on a book by Kenneth Feinberg and adapted by Max Borenstein, Sara Colanego’s biographical drama could have been any number of things. Instead, it is a decent movie with respectful aims peppered with some really good performances. It dances around many exciting ideas but never really delves all that deep into any of them.

The 9/11 Fund was an attempt to limit civil lawsuits from the victims of 9/11. They worried that with the scale of the disaster, the suits could “crater the economy.” This is why they needed to get 80% of the surviving family members and loved ones to sign on board. “Any fewer claimants come aboard, the lawsuits that result could crater the economy. So we’re told.” I find it darkly comical that America ended up cratering the economy all on its own just a few scant years later. 

Sadly, Worth does not have a similar sense of the ironic. Instead, it is a dour and somber film with Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) at the center of it all. Worth may pretend this is a biographical film or perhaps a historical drama, but it is unequivocally the Michael Keaton show. Keaton is the main focus of the film despite the film’s attempt to give us multiple characters.

Keaton’s Law Partner Camille Biros, a woman who seems to understand more than Ken that this is different from any other disaster they’ve worked on before, is played by the fabulous Amy Ryan. Charles Wolf, the victim, offended by Ken’s “formula” for calculating payments and leads a crusade to “Fix the Fund,” is played by the always marvelous Stanely Tucci. Eventually, we meet Priya Khundi, played by Shunori Ramanathan, a former student of Ken’s and who was at the North Tower. She’s brought in to help with Ken and Camille.

Worth is a film that should have been made years ago, but even then, it should be something that feels immediate by today’s standard. The film’s crux revolves around Ken’s formula for the Victim Fund and how inhumane and emotionally cruel it is. Throughout the film, survivors repeatedly refuse to cooperate in interviews simply because it feels like an insurance investigation.

Borenstein’s script focuses mainly on the inner turmoil of Keaton’s Ken as he tries to understand why people aren’t signing up. Add to Ken’s troubles Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), a lawyer who represents the CEOs and high-powered execs who died who are demanding more money. Borenstein and Colangelo show us a morally conflicted Ken. A man who has taught and practiced a theory in calculating payments all his life, only to come up against 9/11.

At times Worth feels prescient. The way it shows how our government’s tendencies to mean test everything until government programs are more cruel than hopeful, for example. But at the same time, I found Colangelo’s choice to replay footage of the Twin Towers falling off-putting and a tad exploitative. Strange considering this is a film meant to showcase the victim’s grief and suffering.

Pepe Avila del Pino’s camera, while largely shrouded in muted colors, does some beautiful storytelling that gets almost washed away by replaying the infamous footage. Ken is looking out the train window; the reflection of a billowing black cloud of smoke is an ellagic and potent way of showing us the aftermath of 9/11, both emotionally and politically. But then we cut to the newsreel footage, and it all feels overkill.

It doesn’t help that Borenstein’s script seems so caught up in Ken’s moral dilemma and his relationship with Tucci’s Charles that the omen is largely ignored. Ramanathan does an excellent job of giving us a woman who is both traumatized and called to help others, but she is given precious little screen time.

At times, Bornstein’s script sparkles with a sort of everyday wit. “There’s no law in this law.” “Don’t be a politician, be a human.” Or the line that is meant to be the ethos of the film, “No one thinks it’s fair, but fair isn’t the goal here. It’s finish and move on.”

But Colangelo and Borenstein never seem all that interested in the credo. Instead, they focus on Charles’s problem with the 9/11 Fund. Worse, they tease the issues without ever stating them. We know Charles has problems with the fund and Ken’s formula, but what exactly they are isn’t directly addressed until halfway through the film. But Colanegelo’s allegiance to the somber even-handed lens of telling the story makes for weak drama and very few philosophical musings. Emotional outbursts in the film feel diluted and lack any punch.

As someone who lived through 9/11, I find this the most galling. Everyone who lived through that moment found themself asking hard questions about America as a country and what it meant to be human. Granted, this all takes place in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, so everyone is still emotionally raw, a point that Amy Ryan’s Camille tries to impart to Ken. Yet, the 9/11 fund is so historical and so massive and successful that it all feels minimized both by the aesthetic and the script.

Worth is one of those movies where, in the end, I am more interested in reading the book it’s based on than ever watching the movie again. Pino’s framing at times tap dances into the ecstatic, and Worth verges into the cinematic. Moments such as Ken staring out into the tumultuous Atlantic ocean. But one moment sticks out more than any other.

Keaton’s Ken is an Opera enthusiast. So one night, while at the opera, the lyrics begin to get to him. It’s a modern opera, and the lyrics are things like “I lost my socks. I lost my wife,” all delivered in a staccato rhythm. But Colangelo and Pino cleverly understand the best special effect any movie has is an actor’s face. So they plant the camera down in front of Keaton at a downward angle, and we watch the moral conflicts wash over him.

It is a moment so sublime it is a shame Worth isn’t a better film. The way the music swells and the colored lights flash gives us an almost visceral insight into Ken’s psyche. Something that Colanego and Pino have kept at arms’ length from us for most of the film.

Disappointedly, Amy Ryan is given nothing comparable. Though she is given a nice subplot about a married gay couple whose civil partnership isn’t recognized by the state, the surviving partner is not eligible for a payout. So instead, she has a scene where she sits in the office listening to the gay man’s lover’s dying words on the answering machine. But unlike Keaton’s moment, hers is visually clumsy and does more to illustrate the main problem with Worth

It’s an ugly film, with bad lighting, whose subject and actors can never overcome it. Perhaps if it were less interested in recording history and more interested in bringing history to life or exploring the past and how it relates today, Worth would be worth more. As it is, it’s okay but ultimately does little despite all the riches of talent it possesses.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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