Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99
The Baltimore Sun

Movie review, 'Thirteen Conversations About One Thing'

Jill Sprecher's ensemble drama, "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," is Altman-esque, with intersecting characters whose lives collide because of fate, luck and the bitter ironies of chance.

It's about New York City itself, lonely and impersonal, the kind of mad place where a guy gets violently mugged on his way home from work. But it's also the kind of place where an accidental encounter in a bar, or a smile from a stranger on a subway, can alter one's life deeply and irrevocably. The film was shot in Manhattan, and the sleek design of its interior/exterior worlds are reminiscent of Edward Hopper's paintings, with themes of isolation, solitude and rich introspection.

Sprecher's second feature was made before Sept. 11. Yet "Thirteen Conversations about One Thing" resonates with intelligence, thoughtfulness and a poignancy made more sorrowful by what happened to all of us, but especially to New Yorkers, on that fateful day.

Sprecher wrote the screenplay with her sister, Karen Sprecher, after they collaborated on the underrated 1997 ensemble comedy/drama "Clockwatchers."

This time, their plot is organized into five story lines that weave into a single tale about the quest for happiness.

One of the pleasures of the film is watching the surprising and artful way that the Sprechers' carefully constructed narrative twists forward and backward, as characters reappear in both the past and future of each other's lives.

Alan Arkin is the standout in one of his best roles to date as Gene, a disgruntled claims manager irritated by a co-worker (Frankie Faison) who's always so cheerful that his cohorts have nicknamed him "Smiley." Smiley is the kind of guy who finds a silver lining in the darkest clouds, who brings home-baked cookies to the office and who doesn't complain about the dull routine of his job.

As the story progresses, it is revealed that Gene's son is a drug addict - a source of frustration and constant pain for his father. With his own world out of his control, Gene makes it a personal mission to test Smiley's inner joy.

Much like a stage play, other storylines cross and collide. John Turturro's physics professor is an adulterous mugging victim; Matthew McConaughey is a yuppie lawyer who has a moral shake-up; Clea Duvall gives an understated, lovely performance as a naive housecleaner whose charitable act results in a life-threatening accident.

Randomness, coincidence and the way good and bad coexist and vie for the spirit and the soul are the ideas that Sprecher elegantly offers up as a valentine to the urban experience. If her film sounds a lot like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," well, Sprecher is after pretty much the same thing.

But where Anderson's film was overblown and showy - a film that screamed "Watch this!" - the low-budget "Thirteen Conversations" is deliberate, unpretentious and ultimately much more moving both as drama and social commentary.

Each of the stories in the film has the potential for "Touched by an Angel" simplicity and sappiness. But "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," for all its generosity and optimism, never resorts to easy feel-good sentiments.

Rather, the Sprechers are going for a philosophical complexity rarely explored by young American filmmakers. "Thirteen Conversations" is a film about ideas, about human frailty and, ultimately, a film about spirituality.

3 1/2stars
"Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"
Directed by Jill Sprecher; written by Jill Sprecher, Karen Sprecher; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Stephen Mirrione; production designed by Mark Ricker; music by Alex Wurman; produced by Beni Atoori, Gina Resnick. A Sony Pictures Classics Release; opens Friday, June 14. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (language and brief drug use).
Troy - Matthew McConaughey
Gene - Alan Arkin
Walker - John Tuturro
Beatrice - Clea Duvall
Patricia - Amy Irving
Helen - Barbara Sukowa

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun