Writer-director Jill Sprecher (Clockwatchers) credits two acts of violence as inspiration for an intriguing talkfest that she titled and basically structured as Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The former philosophy and literature major suffered a severe head injury during an early-1990s mugging in New York. A stranger walked up to her the following year on a subway and slapped her on the head. An empathic passenger smiled at her from across the aisle as long-suppressed tears and anger welled to the surface. That gesture of understanding left Sprecher pondering how we react to random events (from the dramatic to the mundane) that can reshape our lives and the cathartic potential of a stranger’s seemingly minor gesture.
Sprecher developed her thoughts into a script with her co-writer and sister, Karen, a social worker with counseling experience. The resulting film dissects and illuminates interconnectedness and the nature of happiness as four groups of people (attorneys, academics, housekeepers and insurance-claims adjusters) struggle with internal demons, layoffs, obsession, illness, failure, success, redemption, karma, infidelity, resentment and guilt. The smart, elliptic, character-driven story ends where it begins, with Frank Sinatra asking us from the jukebox to “put on a happy face,” as Sprecher both plays with and seriously explores issues linked to fate, professional and personal ruts, deception, despair and hope.
Alan Arkin expels a cloud of cynicism into the story as insurance office boss Gene. Arkin already has such diverse characters as desperate bombardier Yossarian (Catch-22), Freud (The Seven Percent Solution) and desperate real-estate salesman George (Glengarry Glen Ross) already on his palette. Here he paints us a portrait of a man who is suspicious of and obsessed by the conspicuous contentment of an underling. Gene is both barstool preacher and candidate for the Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) school of white-collar misanthropy. His mantra: “Show me a happy man and I’ll show you a disaster ready to happen.”
While Gene deals with corporate downsizing and the drug addiction of his son, yuppie district attorney Troy (Matthew McConaughey) runs from an apparent fatal traffic accident into the arms of isolation and insanity. Housekeeper Beatrice (Clea DuVall) discovers that life may have a miracle or two up its sleeve but is not always fair. Physics professor Walker (John Turturro) believes a mugging and an affair with another professor (Barbara Sukowa), who teaches a class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, have irreversibly changed his outlook on life. He is contradictory (“I’m different now, free of predictability and routine,” he tells his lover. “See you next Thursday, same time.”) and maybe not as different as he assumes.
Conversations between these people and their family, friends and associates are conducted in dining rooms, bars, hotel rooms, restrooms, courtrooms, offices, classrooms and hallways. The talk is divided into such titled chunks as “I’m ready to surrender” and “Eight- een inches of personal space.” They act as oral prisms, refracting lives into distinct hues that are capped at the film’s end with a wordless wave from a subway platform.
A piano-dominated soundtrack with haunting, music-box elements complements the drama. The technical aspects of the film (lighting, set design) are also excellent. People get blamed for crimes they do not commit. Others do not get caught for crimes they commit. There’s room for jokes (“My wife and I were happy for 23 years and then we met.”), metaphors (several characters get cut and drip blood) and war stories (one is about the downside of winning the lottery). There’s also quiet reflection and the year’s most terse and potent end to a love affair.
Thirteen Conversations suggests we are more connected than we think or would ever admit even though we live in cities crowded with people trying hard not to look at each other. It wonders what life is all about. Are you really happy or just content with the status quo? Life seems to make the most sense when looked at backward. It’s the forward progress that has most of us stymied or mystified.