Poignant, touching, and in moments, deeply philosophical, “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” Jill Sprecher’s sophomore effort, very much fulfills the promise she has shown in her 1997 Sundance-premiered debut, “Clockwatchers.”
Interweaving five contemporary stories into a single narrative, the film deals with the profound, often unintentional impact that seemingly disparate people have on one another, while searching for a more meaningful and happier existence. The high-profile cast, which boasts a superb Alan Arkin and solid performances from John Turturro, Matthew McConaughey, and Clea DuVall, should help this Sony Picture Classic release reach its primary indie and arthouse public, though the film’s demanding texture and deliberate pacing, with too many silences and pauses, might limit broader audience appeal.
Jill and sister-co-scripter Karen examine in their highly controlled, intelligent screenplay those random moments in our routine existence that have life-changing power, often despite ourselves. It may not be a coincidence that the film’s origins are based on two violent acts in Jill’s New York life: a severe head injury as a result of mugging, and a physical brutality by a stranger while riding the subway. A reworking of the second incident contributes to the movie’s last, fittingly lyrical image, which depicts a character standing on a subway platform waving to another person on the other side.
The central character is Gene (Arkin), an envious insurance manager seeking revenge on his co-worker, Wade “Smiley” Bowman (Wise), a man who seems to be perpetually cheerful, unfazed by any tragic event. Wade’s good nature, and willingness to accept whatever happens to him, don’t change even after he’s fired by Gene for no apparent reason. In its light, comic moments, Gene’s obsessive relationship with Wade bears the kind of humor and absurdity one finds in Chekhov’s short stories.
In an early conversation at a bar during happy hours, Gene tells Troy (McConaughey) a strange morality tale about a man who quit his job after winning millions of dollars in a lottery, but then found himself depressed. Needless to say, the ebullient Troy, celebrating another victory as an attorney in the courtroom, doesn’t realize the implications of Gene’s cautionary tale on his life. Later that night, riving home, Troy hits a pedestrian (whose face is not seen), but decides to drive away from the accident. That innocent pedestrian turns out to be Beatrice (DuVall), an honest cleaning woman, who’s earlier seen fantasizing about a different kind of life with one of her richer patrons. Indie stalwart Turturro is cast as the quietly exacting Walker, a tormented teacher who’s married to Patricia (Irving) and is having an affair with his colleague Helen (played by German actress Sukowa).
As an intricately poetic meditation on the nature of fate and happiness, “Thirteen Conversations” deviates from current American indies, most of which lack in scope and ambition. Its interconnected, non-linear structure, and specifically the division into chapters with subtitles, is probably influenced by philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness,” which could have been the title of Sprecher’s film, a seminal book that’s also broken down into categories (envy, boredom, guilt).
“Thirteen Conversations” is character-driven film that captures the ebb and flow of daily New York life, its chaotic, isolated, and diffuse texture. In an impressively non-schematic way, the story allows each character to experience an identity or moral crisis, and a dramatic moment of realization, that lead to a better understanding of self and others. Hence, ironically, firing Wade turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to him, and to Gene.
There are thematic similarities between Sprecher’s two movies. Though there’s not much conventional plot development in either “Clockwatchers” or “Thirteen Conversations,” their stories bustle with intriguingly complex psychological observations conveyed in an understated tone. In both pictures, it’s a random, melodramatic act in the workplace that catapults a chain of irreversible events. In “Clockwatchers,” a fable about the emerging camaraderie among four women stranded at a large office, when objects (a coffee mug, a crystal paperweight) begin disappearing, the women become suspect and one is fired, leading to strain that forces them to reexamine their friendships.
However, as original as “Clockwatchers” was, its tone was uncertain, vacillating from a light TV sitcom a la Mary Tyler Moore to a dark Kafkaesque tale of oppression among lowly-positioned secretaries. Furthermore, the quartet of actresses came across as types, with Parker Posey as the wild one, Tony Collette as the shy and father-dominated, Lisa Kudrow as the pretty wannabe actress, and Alana Ulbach as the obsessive-compulsive worker.
“Thirteen Conversations” is a much more controlled enterprise. Vet cinematographer Dick Pope, best known for his work for Mike Leigh’s films, “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies,” endows the film with a meticulously supervised visual look. The film establishes a visual link between the characters’ exterior and interior worlds. Each figure is evoked by a different color scheme: Golden hues for Bea, rich greens for Walker, somber blues for Troy, neutral tones for Gene. Despite the fact that each environment reflects the character’s particular mood, and that the narrative is fractured, “Thirteen Conversations” manages to achieve a coherent feel.