The title of the new movie by Jill (Clockwatchers) Specher may sound frisky or even frivolous, but the film to which it is attached is both playful and glumly serious. And, while the single subject of all those “conversations” seems to be “happiness” (albeit in a rather amorphous sense of the word), the chief “edge” of Thirteen Conversations comes of the fascinating and sometimes confounding interplay of its multiple story lines.
Amid all of the interesting talk in Specher’s film (which she co-scripted with her sister Karen), nearly a dozen characters make their way through a series of loosely but crucially interrelated dramas. There is a physics professor (John Turturro) who is drifting into an affair with a colleague (Barbara Sukowa) and out of his stalled marriage. There is a young lawyer (Matthew McConnaughey) who feels like the world is his oyster, and there is a young cleaning woman (Clea DuVall) precociously given to soul-searching and other spiritual reflections.
The physics professor and his wife (Amy Irving) have the first scene in the movie, and the lawyer is involved in the first unmistakably dramatic event, but in many respects the pivotal figure in the story’s multiple strands is an embittered insurance executive (Alan Arkin) named Gene. First seen in a brief but pointed conversation with the lawyer in a bar, Gene is the film’s resident pessimist, but also its most searching commentator on happiness and fickle fortune.
As a lonely divorcé making futile attempts to help a son immersed in drugs and petty crime, Gene is caught up in assorted personal dramas. But his most telling relationships are at work, where he is irritated by the relentlessly upbeat behavior of an employee referred to as “Smiley” (William Wise) and the brash calculations of another (Shawn Elliott). Meanwhile, his right-hand man (Frankie Faison) is the very picture of genial pragmatism.
Arkin delivers a solid, quietly moving performance, and the modest but effective supporting work of Faison, Sukowa, Irving, and Tia Texada (as DuVall’s testy co-worker pal) does much to flesh out the film’s emotional breadth. But the real payoffs in Thirteen Conversations come from the unexpected connections that emerge from the brief encounters that punctuate its slyly convoluted story.