Tuesday 14 September 2021

On demand: "Worth"

 arrives as a marker of just how badly the industry has been shaken with the onset of Covid and streaming services. In any year prior to 2020, Sara Colangelo's illustrious follow-up to The Kindergarten Teacher - one of the stronger features to have emerged in the year before the pandemic - would have enjoyed a substantial theatrical rollout and serious awards positioning. In our far nervier market, it's had a contractual-obligation release here and there before being semi-buried amid the weekly avalanche of new Netflix content. (There are Kissing Booth sequels that have had a greater promotional push.) It's a shame, because this is a smartly fashioned drama on a fascinating, genuinely one-of-a-kind subject: how the US authorities arrived at a dollar value to be paid out in compensation to the families of 9/11 survivors, so as to circumvent the lawsuits that might have brought the economy - positioned here as a sacred third Tower - crashing down in the atrocity's wake. Any synopsis would contain within it the hint (and threat) of emptily boxy, grandstanding Oscar bait. Yet the film that's been funnelled our way is self-contained and savvy about what it leaves in and out, forever steadied by its two strongest suits: a nimble, thoughtful screenplay by Max Borenstein that broadly does for 9/11's administrative aftermath what Moneyball did with the niche matter of baseball stats; and a central performance by Michael Keaton - as Ken Feinberg, the lawyer handed responsibility of this grave assignment - which suggests Colangelo is interested in sustaining the close-focus character study she enjoyed so much success with first time round. She keeps it human and nuanced, and doesn't get overwhelmed by either occasion or history.

While no Kindergarten Teacher, the film's Feinberg - a Democrat the Bush administration appointed, perhaps spotting a ready scapegoat - is at least a little inconsistent, and Keaton plays the inconsistency in such a way as for it to seem an interesting choice. The reputation that trails him around the Beltway is of a wily negotiator, and Borenstein and Colangelo join him schooling eager-beaver law students. Yet he's clearly more comfortable with theory than practice: a Washington insider and opera buff who travels with vast headphones to shut out the outside world (a scene-setting setpiece has him remaining seated and oblivious while his fellow commuters react to the attack on the Pentagon), he's also an unusually awkward public speaker for a lawyer. The first indication of the strength of this script comes when Feinberg says the wrong thing at an introductory meeting with the victims' families: it's exactly the wrong thing. Granted, this would be a morbidly surreal task for anyone to have to undertake. Only in America, where liability has been aggressively monetised by Saul Goodman-style ad after ad, would such a pre-emptive payout be necessary, and the nuts and bolts remain truly headscrambling. As one character points out, the World Trade Center housed CEOs and janitors alike, and Feinberg had to try and do restitutive justice to both groups. Dramatised verbatim testimony speaks to a healing process that remains ongoing, but the movie's best scenes are loaded with ironies and ambiguities that Colangelo picks up and socks over. Bereaved migrants sit in stunned shock as lawyers offer them $200,000 - more money than they've known in their entire lives - for the loss of their loved ones. And we marvel that a fellow who's so bad with people should have been chosen to make things right. He gets better, thankfully - and both Borenstein's writing and Keaton's performance have a sense of work being done, of a personality being finessed and refined by human contact.

The breakthrough in this legislation came when Feinberg's office realised they had to consider each claim individually, rather than applying some universal formula; the small triumph being commemorated here - nothing when set against the scale of the tragedy, of course - is that of a system loosening up to better accommodate the individual. This is reflected, in turn, by one of those supporting casts American movies used to have before its wiser personnel, sensing a paradigm shift, eloped to cable television. Colangelo's sensitively cast day players suggest disparate personalities, shellshocked in their own way; as Feinberg's deputy Camille Biros, the quietly great Amy Ryan often seems better adjusted to running this case (and thereby allows Colangelo to pass sly comment on how the system is run); and then there's Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf, an owlish blogger who lost his wife in the attacks and now presents as the one stickler eccentric enough to be Ken Feinberg's match. His scenes with Keaton are like watching a pair of flints being smashed together: the sparks would be exciting and warming enough, but then each party begins to divest the other of their sharper edges, and the film starts teaching us something about the practice of negotiation. Mostly, there is Keaton, still a joy as he transforms conversations into growling monologues by answering his own questions, and one of the few remaining screen actors capable of conveying the intelligent thought required for this role. The film is strictly New York secular - which is how it shakes off that post-9/11 hoopla over creed and colour - but its protagonist emerges as almost a Biblical figure, at the centre of a trial that required an uncommon wisdom. Far less idiosyncratic than The Kindergarten Teacher - a film that wound up at such a gripping extreme one forgot it was a remake - Worth sits close to what used to be the Hollywood centreground, yet it still provokes the odd question as you power down for the night, principally: well, how much would you or I be worth? Its indifferent treatment raises other issues besides. Given the apparent determination to toss a film like this - one that would have value beyond the ever-narrow awards corridor - how much is any film worth nowadays?

Worth is now available to stream via Netflix.

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