Review: Worth

Worth is solidly in the cinematic tradition of lawyer-as-Sisyphus real-life dramas, of which Todd Hayne’s Dark Waters is probably the most pertinent of recent examples. If Worth doesn’t quite match up to the slow burn frustration of Dark Waters it has less to do with the presentation than with the underlying legal questions. Dark Waters was a standard little-guys-vs-big corporation tale that kept the technical matters in focus without allowing them to overtake the dramatic elements. The frustration was visceral because what made the case frustrating—Dow Chemical’s avoidance of its responsibility in poisoning the drinking water of an entire West Virginia town—was clearly and intelligently explained. The legal particulars of Worth are not so clear, since they pivot on questions that are almost philosophical in nature. How much, exactly, is a human life worth, especially in relative terms, which is what the case was all about?

The lives in this instance were those lost in the 911 attacks. The U.S. government has decided to compensate the families of the victims so as to preempt the certain likelihood of huge lawsuits being filed against the airlines involved and sinking the economy in the process. The problem is how much to pay, and that job is assigned to private attorney Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton, dusting off his trusty Boston accent), who happens to witness the Twin Towers collapse while commuting into the city and listening to opera on his CD Walkman. Though Feinberg knows that “no one wants this job,” which is to crunch the numbers and figure out who gets how much, he lobbies for it anyway, because “I’m good at this.” And for the most part, Keaton and director Sara Colangelo show off Feinberg’s juridical and bookkeeping acumen to excellent effect. The purpose, however, is to elucidate what an impossible task he has taken on, and while most of the emotional heavy lifting is handled by Feinberg’s colleague, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), who deals directly with the families, it’s the bureaucratic niceties of the case that claim center stage. In that regard, it is Stanley Tucci’s Charles Wolf who provides the foil to all the well-meaning common sense that Feinberg endeavors to wield. Wolf is the spouse of one of the victims and the leader of a movement to “fix the fund” in order to make sure that dead CEOs don’t receive a hundred times more in compensation than the people who mopped the floors or, for that matter, the first responders who lost their lives while saving those of others. 

Inevitably, Feinberg’s insistence on “objectivity” is defeated by the realization that there is no perfect solution to his problem, since it forces him to place a monetary value on something that is, by definition, priceless. Hayne had it much easier. Dark Waters ended not with a clear legal victory against the bad guys, but with a moral victory in that there was an understanding the lawyers for the plaintiffs would continue being an effective thorn in the side of Big Chemical for years to come, thus making sure laws would change for the better. Worth tries to make a similar claim but fails to be as convincing, because while it doesn’t scan as a typical feel-good Hollywood legal drama, it does try to fit the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund into a pat narrative that can’t possibly contain it.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Worth home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 WILW Holdings LLC

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