The many characters in "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" strive
every second of their waking lives to be happy. After all, isn't that
the major goal that we are constantly striving to reach? Like life,
it doesn't always turn out that way. Those that deserve contentment
don't always find it, and those that don't, do. Through the power
of their own actions and the unavoidable hands of fate, each character
finds their personal outlook shattered or mended by the time the end
credits roll. And life goes on.
With "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," director Jill Sprecher
and screenwriting sister Karen Sprecher (whose 1997 workplace slice-of-life
"Clockwatchers" was a small gem) have concocted one of the most emphatic
and thought-provoking motion pictures of the year. Expertly weaving
back and forth between four central storylines taking place in New
York City over the span of a year, the film is told out of chronological
order not as a gimmick, but as a means of deepening the relationships
between these veritable strangers who may or may not realize the pivotal
effect they have on each other's lives.
The picture begins as defense attorney Troy (Matthew McConaughey),
who proudly believes in the justice set by the judicial system, is
celebrating his latest court win at a local bar. After one too many
drinks, he sets off for home, only to hit someone in the road. In
a moment of foolish haste and fear, he goes against everything he
believes in and leaves the scene of the crime. With pangs of unbearable
guilt, he begins to change the way he previously has lived his life
and, as a reminder of his crime, keeps a head wound he sustained from
the accident open with a razor blade.
Walker (John Turturro) is a college professor in such desperation
to find happiness in any way possible that he has begun an affair
with a colleague (Barbara Sukowa) behind his wife's (Amy Irving) back.
What he fails to realize before it's too late is that his wife, Patricia,
has known about it for quite some time, and is biding her time before
the inevitable breakup of their marriage.
Meanwhile, Beatrice (Clea DuVall) is a humble housekeeper so completely
blissful with her place in life that her more cynical friend and coworker,
Dorrie (Tia Texada), looks up to her with admiration and hope for
the future. Even after Beatrice is hit by a car and narrowly escapes
death, she views the occurrence as a sign that she was meant to remain
on the Earth for some reason. Beatrice's outlook drastically changes
and her indomitable spirit plummets, however, when she finds herself
being falsely accused by a client of theft.
Finally, Gene (Alan Arkin) is a mid-level manager at an insurance
company so disgruntled with his life that, when asked to downsize
the company to save money, decides to lay off his most joyful and
uplifting worker (William Wise) in an attempt to emotionally ruin
him. What Gene doesn't realize is that, for all of the problems he
is having (he is separated from his wife and has a drug-addicted son),
they are about to get much worse.
A film that pulses with empathy toward its imperfect characters, "Thirteen
Conversations About One Thing" captures the resourcefulness and fragility
of human nature with a consistently sharp eye that proves truly mesmerizing.
A true conversation-starter, the movie leaves such an impact by its
conclusion that to walk out and not be thinking of one's own choices,
and the eventual repercussions they caused, is to completely have
missed the point of what Jill and Karen Sprecher want us to take away from it all.
One of the many aspects of the film the Sprecher sisters have accomplished
with exquisite accuracy is in introducing an ensemble of people, both
in large and minor roles, who all have lives outside of the scenes
they are captured in. In the course of the film, each is forced to
make a number of decisions that may forever alter their own, and other
people's, futures. The human beings filling each frame do not seem
like characters as much as real-life people gradually imploding as
they realize what little control they have in the outcomes of their every move.
The performances are superlative across the board. Alan Arkin (2001's
"America's Sweethearts"), as the almost cluelessly vengeful Gene,
has what is arguably the most developed and subtly challenging role,
and his stupendous work is Oscar-worthy. The same could be said for
Clea DuVall (1999's "Girl, Interrupted"), as Beatrice, whose drastic
change from a wide-eyed optimist to a broken-down pessimist is genuinely
heartbreaking. Matthew McConaughey (2002's "Frailty") hits every key
with perfection as his character of Troy travels on a downward spiral
to feelings of true reprehensibility. Rounding out the central four
players, John Turturro (2002's "Mr. Deeds") displays effective doses
of self-involvement and loneliness as the comfortable life he once
had drifts off into the distance.
The ultra-fine acting turns do not stop there. Amy Irving (2000's
"Traffic"), in the strongest part she has had in years, finds strength
in her character of Patricia, who discovers her husband's infidelity
and is surprised to find how easily she accepts it. As a troubled
student in Walker's class who looks for hopeful guidance in his teacher
and only finds brutal anthropy, Rob McElhenney's (2000's "Wonder Boys")
pivotal bearing on Walker's section of the film is downright haunting.
Tia Texada (2000's "Nurse Betty") also creates an unforgettable character
in Dorrie, who loses faith in anything good happening in her life
when Beatrice alarmingly changes her own attitude.
"Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" is a startling rumination
on life that avoids pretentiousness by playing out its hand with an
unflinching reality to the people it is about. So involving, and so
unshakably honest, are its themes and ideas that it is a shame it
doesn't run another half-hour, which could have fleshed out the characters
even more. The final scene, which involves two strangers--both people
we have become deeply attached to through the course of the film--finding
personal solace in a moment of mutual recognition, is brilliant. "Thirteen
Conversations About One Things" is, at once, reassuring and disheartening,
remarkably powerful and earnestly genuine. We, as human beings, are
all in the same boat, director Jill Sprecher so passionately wants
us to know, and the only way to truly find happiness is to press on
with life in the best way we know how, thankful that those around
us are just as flawed as we.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman