There are a few things I especially hate about bad movies. A short list would include condescension, cheap emotional manipulation, predictability and oversimplification. But what I really hate is being suckered. All of this happens in the movie ‘Worth.’
Worth is a movie about the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund…and this movie takes what could have been a gritty, painful, interesting story and waters it down to a ‘lawyer rediscovers his humanity’ story…because that’s a lot simpler and it’s a recipe audiences are familiar with and their brains won’t have to work very hard.
But it looked a lot better than that on the outside. I like Michael Keaton as an actor. I like him a lot. Enough that I trusted that this movie wouldn’t be
bad just on the basis of seeing him in it. And for a little while at the beginning, it looked like I might have been right.
But no. No. I was terribly wrong.
Everything, and I mean everything is spoon fed to the audience on the director’s assumption that if we aren’t basically told exactly what’s happening, we won’t figure it out for ourselves. But this is film. The acting is supposed to tell us what’s going on, as is the scenery, the music, and the context. This movie doesn’t do any of that. This movie is about a lawyer named Kenneth Feinberg who volunteered for a job nobody wanted, spending a lot of time getting lectured by Stanley Tucci about how it’s wrong to apply a formula to calculate the worth of a human life. Which would be fine if anyone in the movie ever disagreed with him. But nobody ever does. Even the most cynical, selfish, business motivated characters in the film admit that this formula is an ugly necessity. Stanley Tucci’s character is talking and emoting about how apparently nobody understands that the value of human life can’t be captured by an equation…except that everybody agrees with him, they just don’t agree that there’s a practical way to do what he wants.
Let me be clear, so long as they were making a sincere effort to do the movie respectfully (which they did) I could not care less what they fictionalized to make it work as a film. The much, much, much, much better movie ‘The Insider’ with Russel Crowe and Al Pacino, fictionalized a lot of aspects of tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand’s life, but this didn’t hurt the movie, because instead of using ham fisted expository dialogue to spell out every feeling that everyone is having the actors show the audience what they’re feeling.
Not that there isn’t any acting in Worth. Tucci does a decent job, as does Keaton, but neither of them was given much to work with. However good they may be, you can’t act your way out of a paint by numbers script, mediocre dialogue, and manufactured drama. What does that mean? I mean they invented a fictitious sub-plot where the special master in charge of the fund has to decide what to do about the mistress and two children of a married firefighter who died in the attack. This was so painfully on the nose that it just made me want to turn the movie off.
In the movie the resolution is to simply abandon the formula and give everyone money based on a personal evaluation. And this ruins the film because if this was ever an actual option…then why wouldn’t they just do that to begin with? The film does provide a reason: Feinberg thinks that only an equation can take bias out of the award decisions and keep things fair. But in order to manufacture ‘tension’ the film has him refuse to do the case-by-case approach until the 11th hour, because nothing else will get the necessary 80% of victims families to agree, resulting in the death of the airline industry and the collapse of the economy. But the consequences of failure are never given any weight, and we only hear about them from slimy airline lawyers who are one moustache twirl away from tying a lady to the railroad tracks.
Then we get to the feel-good ending where the families of the poor working-class people finally decide to trust special master Feinberg and his commitment to getting them what they need, and he is able to avoid paying out tons of money to the small number of rich families of company executives that died in the attack. I looked it up. In reality Feinberg was always going to use his discretion to tweak the awards to families to reflect their individual situations and he personally conducted 900 of the 1,600 sit down interviews with them and 97% of families took the payments and agreed not to sue the airlines. That would have made a good film.
But that isn’t a cookbook movie formula, so they didn’t do that, and consequently the movie was mediocre.
Final verdict: Read Ken Feinberg’s book What is life worth? and skip Worth. It’s not awful, but it’s a story that deserved to be done well, and this movie didn’t.