“Erin Brockovich” and “Worth” are based on true stories about lawyers fighting for plaintiffs that have suffered horrible loses.
“Worth,” the new film from Sara Colangelo, is certainly within her wheelhouse of dramas about grief. She previously directed Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Kindergarten Teacher” and Elizabeth Banks in “Little Accidents.”
Her latest for Netflix takes a definitive look at victims of 9/11 and the way the government tried to compensate for their loss. As far as structure, “Worth” and Steven Soderberg’s award-winning Julia Roberts vehicle are similar, which helps the audience cut through much of the legal and procedural stuff. What Colangelo doesn’t quite pull off is convincing the audience this wouldn’t have been better as a documentary.
Appointed as the head of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, lawyer and legal annalist Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) specializes in preventing lawsuits following tragedies.
“It’s no different than my previous cases in that regard,” he says to his wife (Talia Balsam), who glares at his naiveté. Feinberg wants to help, and his knowledge is the only useful tool he has that might provide some comfort to the thousands of suffering families.
His partner, Deputy Administrator Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), approaches the emotional task before them with the humanity Feinberg must discover along the way. His formula for calculating how much each family will receive is blasted by Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) who creates an organization called “Fix the Fund,” simply asking Feinberg and company not to antiquate people with formulas.
“Worth” isn’t boring; it’s heartbreaking, frustrating and compelling. Yet by the conclusion the facts have overtaken many, if not all, the elements that make a film a film. Cinematography, original score, editing; all the technical elements are at their lowest creative level as the film focuses on the acting and the stories of the victims. Nico Muhly’s score is particularly uneventful and misused in scenes that could have used an emotional push.
While Tucci and Ryan are well cast in their respective roles, Keaton never finds a way in on Feinberg. Whether it’s the accent or writing this character as a motormouth, the climax is built around his epiphany moment toward empathy.
The cumulative stories of heartache, loss and death weighing on lawyers documenting the stories is where “Worth” makes an impact. Much like when Roberts met with each person affected by contaminated water in that story, these victims sit down with Feinberg’s team to discuss their loss. The screenplay, by Max Borenstein, highlights how domestic partners and minorities are treated in an event like this, as well as the secrets that families uncover when victims die.
“Worth” also highlights how those who have the least are grateful for any compensation they might receive, and how the rich want more than they deserve. Colangelo injects humanity in the story where she can, but “Worth” is flat and bleak in its delivery, as it mostly takes place in corridors, conference rooms and grey locations.
Final Thought: “Worth” is compelling because of the subject matter, not because of creativity on the part of the filmmakers.