Worth begins with a lighthearted, dynamic, Aaron Sorkin-esque scene that sees lawyer Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) introducing his class to the world of life insurance and class-action lawsuits. He assigns each student a role in a hypothetical scenario wherein a man’s life must be compensated due to a tragic accident. “You haven’t stumbled into a philosophy course,” Feinberg says, matter-of-factly pointing to the central question of the class — and the movie — written on the chalkboard: “What is life worth?” It’s a thought-provoking and compelling scene, and even this early in the film, Keaton is obviously perfectly cast as a callous, wealthy lawyer who may or may not have a heart underneath his slick armor. However, that scene is not the true first scene of the film — instead, it begins with a cold open confessional from a character who lost her loved one in the 9/11 tragedy, and, like many of the other confessionals from characters later in the movie, it’s heart-wrenching.
That tonal whiplash is clearly what director Sarah Colangelo and writer Max Borenstein intend, as Worth follows Feinberg’s appointment as the Special Master in charge of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg’s initial quest is to appease as many people as possible while remaining impartial, and the film takes him from a well-intentioned but harsh mouthpiece of bureaucracy to a crusading and kind-hearted man of the people. Helping him make that transition is activist Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife in the attacks and scoffs at Feinberg’s proposed compensation plan for being too unfair and inconsiderate. Both Keaton and Tucci are excellent as two men coming at the same problem from different sides who nevertheless respect each other, making most of Worth into a legal drama that sees relatable people attempt to solve an impossible problem.
That problem — how to fairly assist all the thousands of bereaved families of the victims — still has not been fully solved in real life, so the film has no hope of providing any concise solution itself, and it knows it. As a result, the movie attempts to reconcile heavy material (like all those confessionals) with a rousing “man-against-the-clock” drama, and the end result is as messy and confused as that sounds. Colangelo and Borenstein have juggled disparate elements before — her films like The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) and Little Accidents (2014) handled dark material with some nuance, and Borenstein’s infusion of real-world traumas into the scripts he co-wrote for Universal’s “MonsterVerse” films (especially 2014’s Godzilla) gave those movies a pleasingly deeper resonance than one might’ve expected. Here, though, their collective focus is off — the film has a few remarkably grounded and harrowing scenes that are placed right next to awkward, clunky, TV-procedural-drama moments, the type where characters spout exposition or conveniently overhear plot points or nakedly state their thematic intention. Structurally and tonally, Colangelo and Borenstein seem to be throwing everything they can at the film in order to see what sticks, and some of those attempts fall flat.
Fortunately, the film’s cast smooths over a lot of the movie’s issues, making Worth a compelling watch, at least. In addition to Keaton and Tucci, Amy Ryan does a remarkable job as Feinberg’s right hand Camille Biros, and her subplot is the most successful of all the subplots in the movie. Tate Donovan is suitably slimy without being too caricatured as a lawyer representing the higher income victims of 9/11, and Shunori Ramanathan gives the movie its much-needed Everywoman. Colangelo keeps her framing in Classic Hollywood mode, letting this cast take the reins for the most part, but she also works in some compelling images, such as Feinberg standing in front of his massive CD collection, revealing his wealth as well as the more compassionate man that lurks inside his tough exterior.
Through the course of the film, Feinberg and his firm’s crusade is presented with increasingly Capra-esque moments, culminating in a last-minute outpouring of goodwill that would’ve easily fit into It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). It’s all very sweet and likable, but the movie’s introduction of so many disparate elements and raising of questions it can’t or won’t answer leaves such crowd-pleasing victories feeling more hollow than satisfying. Ultimately, like its protagonist, Worth can’t quite reconcile such a massive, complex issue. Its only answer to that central question of what life’s worth is is yet another question: “Is that it?”
(Screened at the Sundance Film Festival)