"13 Conversations About One Thing" is about as far removed from a Hollywood movie as a film can be and still have familiar stars and a traditional narrative form--albeit with some deft shifts back and forth in time.
Tautly written, resolutely low-key, intricately constructed and very serious about the risky business of being alive, "13 Conversations" demands the utmost concentration, for to look away from the screen for even a brief moment is to risk losing a plot line or a crucial bit of information, but its cumulative, transporting impact makes it worth the effort. Above all, it has an overwhelming sense of reality atypical of the American cinema.
In the early 1990s, aspiring filmmaker Jill Sprecher suffered a severe head injury from a mugging. The following year, a complete stranger came up to her on a subway train and inexplicably slapped her on the head. As tears started welling in her eyes, Sprecher thought to herself, "I hate people," only to discover a fellow passenger offering her a kindly smile. "That smile just broke the spell," Sprecher recalled. "It was like the final healing for me." Sprecher, who had been a production coordinator and manager and a line producer on studio and independent features, made her directorial debut with the 1997 film "Clockwatchers," about a group of office temps, which she wrote with her sister Karen. After its completion, the two started work on "13 Conversations." Triggered by Sprecher's desire to consider the traumatic incidents she had experienced and their resolution, they decided to explore the often calamitous consequences of seemingly inconsequential or random events.
"13 Conversations" is composed of four loosely connected vignettes involving everyday New Yorkers. A physics professor, Walker (John Turturro), remarks to the wife (Amy Irving) he is cheating on with a sultry literature professor (Barbara Sukowa) that he wants what everybody wants: "To experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy."
He could be speaking for Sprecher's other key characters as well. Alan Arkin's Gene is a veteran manager of a claims adjusters department for a big corporation. His steadfast goal in working himself up from the bottom has cost him his marriage and left him with an estranged, drug-addicted son. A sour, irritable but fundamentally decent man, Gene feels continually annoyed by the sunny, upbeat personality of one of his men (William Wise), of whom he remarks to his one friend (Frankie Faison) that the guy lacks ambition and vision--but significantly is a successful husband and father.
In contrast to Walker and Gene, both moody types, Matthew McConaughey's Troy feels on top of the world. A young deputy D.A., he loves his work, which he believes demonstrates that the system works after all. He is a law-and-order type with a passion for punishing the guilty. And finally there's Clea DuVall's Bea, a pretty young woman who works for a Manhattan cleaning service and who keeps her friend and co-worker Dorrie (Tia Texada) cheered up with her optimistic outlook on life.
All four central characters will undergo wholly unexpected experiences that will reveal to them how treacherous are the assumptions upon which they have been living their lives. Sprecher evokes in thoroughly unsettling fashion how unpredictable and uncertain life is from moment to moment, with most but not all of life's surprises turning out to be negative. She is wise enough to know that this is hardly news, and instead makes a subtle, implicit case for having a little patience and kindness with ourselves and others.
Contemplative rather than didactic in tone, "13 Conversations" dares to be philosophical in its point of view but at the same time is studded with portrayals as rigorous as the Sprechers' script. All the actors bring a shining humanity to their portrayals, and "13 Conversations'" four stars could not be better. Indeed, Gene is one of Arkin's best, richest screen roles ever, and McConaughey is most effective in showing us a man crumbling behind a handsome facade. It was a smart move for McConaughey to make this film; stardom came too fast for him, but this is the best kind of retrenching, revealing what a fine actor he can be. Turturro and DuVall are no less impressive. DuVall has an especially wonderful moment when she eagerly delivers a shirt she has mended to an architect whose swanky apartment she cleans, only to find him assuming that she has stolen his watch.
Frequent collaborator of British director Mike Leigh, cinematographer Dick Pope brings to the film a clear glow that heightens its realistic feel, and Alex Wurman's spare, elegant score contributes strongly to creating and sustaining the film's shifting moods.
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief drug use. Times guidelines. There are four-letter words but not in excess; exceptionally complex adult themes.
'13 Conversations About One Thing'
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Jill Sprecher. Producers Beni Atoori, Gina Resnick. Executive producers Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Peter Wetherell, James Burke, Heidi Crane. Screenplay by Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Stephen Mirrone. Music Alex Wurman. Costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone. Production designer Mark Ricker. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
At selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun