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13 Conversations About One Thing

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 13 Conversations About One Thing

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro
Director: Jill Sprecher
Rated: R
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Barbara Sukowa, Malcolm Gets, Frankie Faison, Clea Duvall, Amy Irving, Alan Arkin

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Men may have only one thing on their minds, as my dates back in college used to tell me, but "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" is not about that. The story is about something even more important: happiness. The conversations, which are introduced by director and co-writer Jill Sprecher in a non-linear fashion mixing up past, present and future are vignettes, a series of skits, some comical, some poignant, and unlike other films that employ that method of communication the characters do not all meet by the conclusion. Like the more commercial enterprise, Paramount Pictures' "Changing Lanes" (which is not only about the literal wrong turn taken by a car on New York's FDR Drive but about the ways that the principal characters change their lives), "Thirteen Conversations" is a movie about ideas. Sprecher's work is theatrical, not only because most of the scenes take place within closed spaces, but because the story is dialogue-driven as are many productions on the legitimate stage. But since the tale does not really require what's usually called a cinematic treatment, everything works just fine thanks to some superb acting particularly by Alan Arkin and some sharp, credible dialogue throughout by Karen and Jill Sprecher.

The movie deals with particular people found in four distinct occupations: attorneys, academics, housekeepers and insurance claims adjustors all of whom talk mostly to others in their own fields but whose lives intertwine with those in other professions when the exposition so requires. Gene (Alan Arkin) is the manager of a department in a New York insurance firm who, like all the other personalities in the story has personal problems that affect their work. Gene is divorced with a rebellious, drug-addicted son, Ronnie (Alex Burns), whom he must regularl bail out of jail. His conversations, like those of the others, are not directly about The Meaning of Happiness and How To Find It but all of Sprecher's people deal tangentially with that issue at all times. Gene, for example, regularly asks co- worker Dick Lacey (Frankie Faison) why Wade Bowman (William Wise) is always smiling, even though Wade is not as intelligent as he is. Gene's envy of Wade's perpetually good- natured bearing affects the relationship of the two men unfairly.

Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is a good-time guy, a moralistic assistant D.A. who believes strongly in the law as the governing force in society, but the guilt he feels when he is responsible for a hit-and-run disaster strongly affects his bearing. Walker (John Turturro) is a physics teacher who has lost the thrill he used to get from classroom activities, is married to Patricia (Amy Irving) and has a woman on the side on Thursdays (Barbara Sukowa), while Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a housekeeper, discusses with her friend Dorrie (Tia Texada) the way a particular accident has changed her life.

The production notes cite Bertrand Russell's book "The Conquest of Happiness," which deals with the three obstacles to that condition, namely envy, boredom and guilt, and my oh my, how Ms. Sprecher, previously known for the 1997 film "Clockwatchers" (about four bored temps who form a friendship that hurts their careers), manages to infuse Russell's concept subtly into this film. The inhabitants that populate "Thirteen Conversations" alternate between a giddy optimism and a foggy pessimism, some managing to find a modicum of happiness while others become more turned off on life as they see little other than guilt, envy and boredom ahead.

Alan Arkin cements the story, just as he did most other films that featured his ability to act like Everyman ("The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," "The Russians are Coming..."). He brings a hangdog expression and a commentary with considerable humor to every conversation he's in, such as in his meeting with Troy, the lawyer, in which he expounds on a fellow worker who won a $2 million lottery and had not had a moment's peace since. In a variation of the old expression, "Be careful what you wish for: you may get it," the insurance adjustor warns that "May you get what you want" is actually a gypsy curse, and Sprecher knows how to manipulate her characters on the big screen to prove how some, especially Troy, are ruined by that very idea.

Sprecher directs with Pinteresque pauses that seem to ask us in the audience to fill in the blanks with our own takes on the dilemmas faced by these ordinary people. Let's hope that the years ahead bring us more films about ideas, stories that are as good as this one, because what the world has hungered for since Aristotle is to encounter tales that cause us to reach into our souls to understand what we may expect from life.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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