thirteen conversations about one thing (2002)


director: jill sprecher

alan arkin, john turturro, matthew mcconaughey, clea duvall

Jill Sprecher's movie about morality and guilt opens with a scene so deadly that it makes your heart sink. A husband and wife (John Turturro and Amy Irving) sit down to a meal in a stark New York apartment that's obviously meant to symbolize their barren life together. They engage in a dialogue of spectacular unreality, composed mainly of loaded statements and ominous platitudes. It's not a promising start.

Happily, things get more interesting, but Thirteen Conversations About One Thing - the title hints at the film's essay-like heart - never loses its deliberate, machine-like tone. The film's structure isn't unfamiliar - a seemingly unconnected cast of characters undergoing moral crises end up intersecting with each other's lives. The cocky D.A. (Matthew McConaughey) who meets a depressed cynic (Alan Arkin) in a bar ends running down a pollyanna-ish young housecleaner (Clea DuVall) and fleeing the scene. He spirals into a guilt-wracked depression and sells his sportscar to an academic (John Turturro) going through a midlife crisis triggered when he was mugged by Arkin's junkie son.

In cosmopolitan Vienna, this would be an offhandedly decadent story of infidelity, and would follow a string of wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers till the circle completed itself. Sprecher's film isn't near as tidy, or as sexy, crisscrossing back over itself with its sprawling cast of characters, but it works, mainly because of its setting - New York City, where it's an article of faith that a stranger's life can suddenly burst in on your own without warning.

The central character, though, is Alan Arkin's Gene, a manager at an insurance company whose bitterness has leached into every fibre of his life, and who tries to justify his bleak worldview by persecuting Wade (William Wise), the office optimist. His hawk-like features - constantly on the verge of a grimace - and his barking delivery build a remarkable portrait of a man who has invested everything in his fervent belief in the unfairness of life.

Thirteen Conversations is a film full arresting images - the strange beauty of the light in the ventilation shaft of an apartment house - that erupt like oases in a trudging, pitiless morality play. It's ultimately not as satisfying as its own logic requires, but the performances are more than watchable, and there's lingering moral uneasiness in the air as its credits roll.