13 Conversations About One Thing (2001) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and brief drug use
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving, Barbara Sukowa
Director: Jill Sprecher
Screenplay: Karen Sprecher, Jill Sprecher

Review published January 6, 2003

Whenever we're down, there's usually someone who will like to say that happiness is just around the corner.  THIRTEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING takes a more pessimistic approach, because by the same token, whenever we're happy, sadness is just around the corner. 

With its moral backbone providing the foundation for interconnecting stories, one might consider CONVERSATIONS another attempt to replicate MAGNOLIA, but there's actually much more of an somber intellectual persuasion employed, recalling Lawrence Kasdan's GRAND CANYON than anything else. 

McConaughey plays Troy, the happy man at the beginning of the story, who displays his hubris after winning a big court case and celebrating at a nearby bar, only to get into an argument about whether he is truly ever happy with a consummate skeptic, Gene English (Arkin).  Of course, what was once up has definitely come down, as Troy accidentally runs into a pedestrian on the way home, and leaves her to die because there are no witnesses to the event.  Guilt begins to slowly erode his every thought, and concentration on his work proves to be an impossibility.  Meanwhile, the story flashes back to tell the tale of the young girl that he hit, a maid who already had a near death experience which changed her life and her outlook on it forever.  We also are shown Gene's reason for his pessimism, discussing his difficulties dealing with his junkie son, down times at the office, and the one guy in his office so happy, nothing seems to ever rattle him.  Turturro plays a college professor who finds himself in an affair, stuck in a rut with a belief in the absolute, and the irreversibility of one's actions.

The team of Jill and Karen Sprecher are now written down as filmmakers to watch, following up their terrific office comedy, CLOCKWATCHERS, with a wholly different, but just as well-made second film.  The script is full of profound moments, interesting observations, and a moral underpinning that is rare to find in American movies today.  It's a talk piece, but never dull, and if there is any downside to the film, it's the somewhat unnatural feel of many of the conversations, a rather contrived approach to plotting that is perhaps unavoidable when constructing interlocking storylines with a common theme.  The ensemble of actors is terrific, with Arkin the stand-out as the man who refuses to believe in happiness.

If you like films that explore moral dilemmas, such as CHANGING LANES, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, and the aforementioned MAGNOLIA and GRAND CANYON, you definitely should give 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING a viewing.   It's a thoughtful, absorbing piece, almost guaranteed to make you reflect on your own life, and whether or not you are truly happy.  As the film contends, you might be surprised at what you find.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo