With a title as curious as 13 Conversations About One Thing, most moviegoers probably want to know what the "thing" is before plunking down their bucks to see the movie. Well, that "thing" appears to be happiness, and the search for it. But don't let that fact and the peppy title fool you - this film isn't filled with a bunch of inane chick chatter. Writer/director Jill Sprecher's follow-up to her debut Clockwatchers has an overall tone of despair and a faint hint of evil, much like that first film. It results in a surprising, bold, satisfying drama with a mildly depressing wave running through it.
But here, the downtrodden vibe has more complexity than Clockwatchers, as does the storyline. Co-written with sister Karen, Sprecher's screenplay follows a series of New York City tales that, aside from their underlying themes, are apparently unconnected... or are they?
The cast, including Matthew McConaughey as an aggressive attorney, John Turturro as an anal physics professor, and the excellent Alan Arkin as an insurance claims adjuster, all separately question the concepts of contentment and happiness, both for themselves and on a larger scale. Each character is in, well, a bit of a life-altering jam. The depths with which Sprecher investigates these New York creatures and their surrounding habitat are impressive, as she skillfully provides hints of backstory here and there, creating a sad mini-universe quite effectively. Think of 13 Conversations as a sort of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors crisscrossing a Todd Solondz film.
And just like those two filmmakers, Sprecher litters the film with some harsh wit as well, most notably from Arkin, who is superb as insurance manager Gene English. Gene is divorced, feeling work pressures, and having massive legal troubles with his son. He's also unendingly obsessed with, and pissed at, "Smiley" Bowman, the happiest guy in his office. But so angry that he's willing to wipe the smile off Smiley's face? And to what ends will he go? Arkin's on-the-edge performance makes you wonder whether you should titter at him or fear him (both occur), and justice would be served if critics groups remember Arkin for this role at the end of 2002.
In addition to the strong cast, 13 Conversations benefits from Sprecher's ambitious attempts to make the script more literate and thought-provoking than your average indie. She aims for this, not just with discussions of satisfaction and fate, but also with well-planned metaphors. Some bomb, feeling too contrived and amateurish (Turturro's Professor Walker teaches that certain physics actions are "irreversible" - yeah, we get it), and others are right on the money (Clea DuVall's Beatrice has a winking doll whose closed eye opens just about the time Beatrice sees things more fully). But, sink or swim with these, the attitude is right, and the efforts are welcome.
The full effect is a swirling environment of very different New Yorkers, all trying to get what they want - even if they don't know what that is. Sticking more with the happiness theme and less with the examination of fate would've given even greater sharpness to the film - the concept of fate has been grossly overused and too easily relied upon since the Godfather series - but it doesn't weaken the overall power of the movie.
What Sprecher is really shooting for, I believe, is a population that just smiles at each other once in a while. That's all you need to be happy sometimes -- that's her thinking. And it may be true, especially for some terribly sad people. Another of her beliefs seems to be that life's a bitch. And that may be true as well.
Screened as part of the 2002 Boston Women's Film Festival.
13 equations that make no sense.