View Date: May 4th, 2002

Rating: ($$$$ out of $$$$$)


Alan Arkin Gene
Clea DuVall Beatrice
Frankie Faison Dick
Amy Irving Patricia
Matthew McConaughey Troy
Tia Texada Dorrie
John Turturro Walker
William Wise Wade

Directed by:
Jill Sprecher 

Written by
 Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher 

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Thirteen Conversations about One Thing

Contrary to popular cinematic desire and sentiment, the “one thing” in the title is not in any way, shape or form, sexually related.  Nor is it, as Curly stated in the dreadful City Slickers sequel, gold.  Defining simply what it is, isn’t really possible.  In it’s purest form, it’s happiness, but thanks to director Jill Sprecher’s philosophically based, multi-layered depiction, and screenplay (along with sister Karen), the search for and definition of said happiness is a bumpy, complicated road, full of hurdles, complications, and the twists and turns that fate has laid out for us.  This is not a film for the light hearted filmgoer, nor is it one for the closed minded, there is a lot more going on in this film than just conversation, but everything is relayed via the words, actions and reactions of the characters.  Sprecher’s choice to use the non-linear storytelling style (ala Pulp Fiction) is not necessarily inspired by said film, but rather a convenient, and necessary method of delivering the movie’s message with its strongest impact.  This is a film you will want to, and should see, several times, and also should think about, and review your own life, in the context of the characters and the decisions and actions shown.

Conversations is not really about a specifically defined story, but rather an exploration of characters lives, based upon traumatic events that have caused them to reexamine where they stand in the grand scheme.  Like Fiction, and Amores Perros, the characters from the stories, at first seemingly unrelated, intersect with each other in a very natural and believable manner.  We are all victims of our decisions and reactions to other people in our lives.  Fate has laid the groundwork, and predetermined certain aspects of our lives, but it is our choice as to where things go from their.  Ms Sprecher, a student of not only cinematic history, but philosophy as well, shows both influences very boldly and realistically, in her depictions.  The movie starts with Turturro, a mugging victim and physics professor, who has cracked under the pressure of a life spent living teetering on the edge of happiness.  His marriage is crumbling, he’s having an affair with a fellow teacher, and cracks down on his students in an apparent retaliation for not being able to find or define his happiness.  McConaughey is a hotshot lawyer who has just won a big case, and is celebrating at a bar.  While there, he encounters an tired, slightly embittered insurance adjustor (Arkin, in the best role he’s ever done) who offers some sage advice about happiness “Show me a happy man, and I’ll show you a disaster waiting to happen” he tells the young lawyer, and sure enough, he waxed prophetically.  On his way home, the attorney is involved in a hit and run pedestrian accident, that seems to eat and tear away at his already fragile moral fiber.  Meanwhile, the young girl he hits, Duvall, is a dreamy eyed housekeeper, who suddenly begins to find the happiness in her life, after having her eyes opened from being so close to death.  

Each of these people represent the millions of people wandering through life in search of answers, hoping they will just fall right into their laps, rather than actually doing something about it.  Their lives are perched precariously on the precipice of collapse, needing only some kind of influence to push it one way or the other.  Conversations explores what happens, when the characters are given a revelatory occurrence, and how their lives change after that.  Sprecher has an amazing talent for capturing the deeper emotional side of everyday life, as she did in her debut film, the underrated office classic, Clockwatchers.  As in that film, she uses drab surroundings, contrasted with explosions of color, to reflect the varying emotions of these peoples lives.  Her interactions of characters in differing aspects of a similar plight, intersecting, and reacting with each other, is reminiscent of Altman’s Short Cuts, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, mixed together with a hint of Todd Solondz.  In fact, many may compare this film to Solondz disturbing dark comedy Happiness (Sprecher, in fact, stated a bit of hesitancy upon hearing about Solondz film and it’s premise), but she does what he couldn’t, deals with the subject matter of the search for bliss, and the cause and effects of actions, with a meticulously brutal touch, and without the shock value.  She simply lets the characters words and insights resonate in your mind, and lets your imagination play with what she doesn’t show you.  She definitely deserves her placement amongst the great independent film directors (like Solondz, Egoyan, and Arronofsky) and gives an emotional, but harshly truthful look at the complexity of dealing with the search for something that should be so simple.  What lies behind that smiling face that you see on the street.  Is that person really happy? Do we really just wander blindly through life, sometimes not even realizing the effect that the littlest thing can have on someone else’s life.  It’s not always the big things that change us, but the little things that come about as a result, and this film reflects that to near perfection.  A simple wave, a gentle smile, a passing hello on the street, can sometimes hold more power than we realize.  Sprecher reflects both aspects, big and small, through her characters.  I could go on about the depths, the realizations, and the deeper meanings of this movie (which is also held together by different titled sections, usually quotes from the characters, such as “Show me a happy man” or “18 Inches of personal space” but this is a film to be seen, talked about, examined, and then seen again to truly appreciate its complexities. Sprecher uses the gentlest touch to deliver the harshest messages, of loneliness (through a passing glance at a stranger on the street), of common bonding amongst kindred souls who don't know they are (through a simple wave on a train) and through life's fitting ironies (through the use of Turturro's reaction to a student's drastic measures).  These are the signs of a confident, intellectual, determined filmmaker.

Like her contemporaries, Altman, PT Anderson and Woody Allen, Sprecher shows a very deft touch at not only balancing a large cast, without becoming excessive or distracting, but also at eliciting the career best performances from some underacheivers or underappreciateds.  As I stated above, this is arguably the best work that Arkin has ever done.  As the story's pained, conflicted and emotional protagonist, Arkin shows his prototype nervous instability, combined with a simmering that frustration that comes out in subtle actions, calm looks and monotones, similar to his role in Glengarry Glen Ross.  He have never been better utilized and if this one doesn't garner his third Oscar nod, if not his first win, then the Academy may need to rethink their evaluation procedures.  This film is nearly cursed with being out so early, but I beg them to remember it.  McConaughey is starting to finally overcome his pretty boy image, and take some more daring roles which showcase the potential that so many have been waiting for.  He has harnessed his good looks and confidant swagger, but also mixed in a darker, troubled side which oozes painfully from his eyes and makes us nearly cringe in relation as we see and feel what his character does.  DuVall's energy and positive outlook even amidst the bleakest of futures, and Turturro's anal retentive, know-it-all pessimism delivered to near monotone perfection, subtly, but effectively set the film's mood and hammer home the point.  Together, they all meld, yet conflict to show a slice of society that does not have a simple resolution, as life often doesn't, but also gives a brutally realistic perspective on the neverending quest for internal, external, and eternal bliss. 

Ultimately, 13 Conversations is an intricate puzzle and solution, reflective of the basic human struggle to find and understand what happiness is, as seen through the eyes of several seemingly tortured souls. With this film, Sprecher laughs in the face of the sophomore jinx that befalls many directors after achieving critical acclaim (as she did in the love it/hate it dark office comedy, Clockwatchers).  She stays true to her vision, rooted both in philosophy and love of the art of cinema, to create an intricate societal portrait that relates to more of us than we care to admit.  Sprecher, a fellow Midwesterner, has stated that this movie sprung from an idea based around Arkin’s character, and his protagonist, a perpetually happy person.  He seemed to have it all figured out, and to paraphrase Monty Python, always looked on the bright side of life. Arkin was not only jealous of that, but also introspective about his own bliss, and fighting to keep his sanity during the journey to find it.  Adding in some personal experiences, she and Karen have pieced together a masterpiece of social observation.  This is a film that should be seen by every person who ever complains about their life, or is trying to keep up the Jones’s, or is wondering what it takes to be happy, or even makes assumptions that those who seem to have it all, really don’t, and those who seem to have very little, may actually be the richest of all.  Each character represents a different aspect, a different battle of the same war.  Have we as a people become so disconnected, that we’ve forgotten that happiness may indeed be found in the most unexpected places and ways? Do we walk around, hustling and bustling to get by, sleepwalking through a routine, then bemoaning when our lives go nowhere?  If any of these ring true, then maybe you should take careful notes during this film.  Sprecher’s keen social observation, yet again, is a philosophical commentary on the simplicity of life, the complication of human emotion and the clarification that can come in unexpected packages


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