October 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Worth’ review: Michael Keaton humbly carries the weight

Michael Keaton’s nervous, intelligent character energy is such a wonderful, versatile cinematic resource that he’s become one of those actors whose appearance in a cast list is an instant guarantor that at least his scenes will pulsate with purpose, humor, density, whatever is needed. One can easily imagine how less likely the best picture Oscar chances of “Birdman” and “Spotlight” would have been without his multi-faceted magnetism running through them.

What his spiky, wheels-turning charisma usually signifies for a certain type of movie is that a tough subject’s human dimensions will get their proper workout. And in Sara Colangelo’s solemn, thoughtful drama “Worth,” about the bumpy handling of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, that means Keaton — as the fund’s pressured mediator, Ken Feinberg, commissioned to answer unimaginable grief with monetary value — has a role ideally suited to his strength: a smart person in a tricky situation.

Feinberg had a reputation for settling impossible disputes. He also knew it. Being a patriotic lawyer to boot, he took the fund’s special master role pro bono, trusting in the power of formulas to provide a number that would allow the bereft to move on with their lives. He understood that on one level, the hastily legislated blank-check fund was Congress’ way of keeping the airlines from being sued out of business. But as depicted in Max Borenstein’s screenplay, which was inspired by Feinberg’s memoir, the Boston-born lawyer also believed the cold, rational nature of his job was what the stricken needed: He’d make the hard estimates of a life’s worth so an upended wife, husband, brother, mother didn’t have to.

That well-intentioned arrogance becomes a problem, though, when Feinberg’s first presentation to victims’ families is met with seething anger over being treated like spreadsheets, as accusations of unfairness and political maneuvering, not to mention angling outside forces, start clouding his law firm’s efforts to sign people up. A suspicious first responder (Chris Tardio) doesn’t want his firefighter brother’s widow (Laura Benanti), left with three kids, taking what he considers blood money. Feinberg tangles with a cynical high-end attorney (a suitably oily Tate Donovan) who wants to persuade families to sue for more instead of sign for less. A soft-spoken widower (Stanley Tucci) critical of the special master’s detached methods starts a group called Fix the Fund. And while Feinberg’s law partner (Amy Ryan) and an eager new associate (Shunori Ramanathan) push for a more compassionate communication with the victims’ kin, Feinberg is reluctant to bring emotion into what he believes should be a rule-bound, quantitative process.

Considering the scenario’s contours of anguish and mistrust, Colangelo and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino lean into a mostly static visual style of loneliness, stillness and dark interiors that wouldn’t feel out of place in a muted ’70s drama. Occasionally, that mode feels forced, but as “Worth” charts the messiness-averse Feinberg’s gradual embrace of what he recognizes should be a humane calculation, Colangelo’s restraint achieves a kind of poignance. That’s especially so when the engagingly gruff Keaton and a fantastically composed Tucci share the screen as respectful antagonists who’d rather feel out the understanding they know is there than fight it out. In today’s polarized world, when bridging differences feels more remote than ever, their push-and-pull scenes are like lessons in how to talk with one another from some simpler time.

Nothing was simple about what the 9/11 victims went through, of course. It’s to “Worth’s” credit that in its depiction of a couple of the families — composite characters invented by the screenwriter, but informed by the myriad lives Feinberg encountered — there are complexities no three-act message in connecting is going to solve. What we’re left with is, thankfully, sharp exchanges about loss and conscience, a director’s sincere approach to potentially melodramatic material, and in-the-moment actors like Keaton, who makes the humbling weight of adding up lives into the stuff of compellingly sober contemplation.

‘Worth’

Rated: PG-13, for some strong language and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Available Sept. 3 on Netflix