Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 20, 2002
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Starring Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, Matthew McConaughey, and John Turturro. Directed by Jill Sprecher. Written by Jill and Karen Sprecher. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Accidents Will Happen

Questions of happiness lead to Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Like the Coen brothers, the filmmaking team of Jill and Karen Sprecher is made up of two siblings from the Midwest with collegiate backgrounds that include studies in film and philosophy, though their low-key films would never be mistaken for the Coens’. They first gained attention in 1998 with their extraordinary debut film, a workplace comedy called Clockwatchers. Set in a surreal cubicle-and-fluorescent-light environment, its story about office temps going quietly insane from soul-numbing labor and corporate indifference attained an almost Samuel Beckett-like existential despair. (The movie was pretty funny, too.) The Sprechers’ second film, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, is quite a different animal.

It skips backward and forward over a period of two years as it follows four main characters living in New York City. Gene (Alan Arkin) is an insurance claims adjuster who seethes with bitterness over his own bad luck and anyone else’s good luck, and he becomes obsessed with a co-worker nicknamed “Smiley” (William Wise) for his tirelessly upbeat attitude in the face of adversity. Gene’s point of view is diametrically opposed to that of Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a cleaning service worker who goes about life in a state of near-religious serenity. Her attitude is sorely tested, though, when she’s run down by a car driven by Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a brash prosecuting attorney who seems to have life figured out until that point. Horrified, Troy flees the scene of the accident, but he’s shattered and overwhelmed with anguish over the misfortune. He sells his car to Walker (John Turturro), a physics professor who tries to vary the routine of his life via the time-tested method of having an extramarital affair with a colleague (Barbara Sukowa).

Where Clockwatchers squeezed laughs out of an office temp’s struggle against futility, this movie’s an essentially serious-minded drama about people who are more purposeful. Its atmosphere isn’t as claustrophobic. Their work as office temps inspired the sisters to make Clockwatchers, but this is an even more personal film, filled with incidents from the Sprechers’ real lives.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Sprechers are better with comic absurdity than with realistic storytelling. The dramatic ironies are underlined heavily — Troy is recommended for a promotion immediately after his accident; Walker tells his mistress he wants a less predictable life and then immediately says, “See you next Thursday, same time.” It’s hard to get invested in the movie’s philosophical questions when the situations that pose them are labored. The dialogue is so laden with aphorisms that it becomes mannered. (It’s a bit much when an office drone opens a conversation with, “Show me a happy man and I’ll show you a disaster waiting to happen.”) Also, none of the characters’ stories come to a satisfying resolution. It seems as if the Sprechers wanted a middle ground between a traditional poetic ending for each story and a slice-of-life approach where the characters continue on without neat closure. They wind up getting the benefits of neither.

And yet the Sprechers are far too talented for us to simply dismiss Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The movie is structured around the brief encounters between the four major characters, and the dovetailing of their stories is well managed. The dramatic situations that they’re in may be shaky, but the characters themselves, except for the dull professor (John Turturro is wasted here), are absorbing. The acutely observed portraits have a literary polish to them, and the film’s individual segments assume unique qualities from the personalities of their characters.

The cast helps enormously in this because the Sprechers, like all filmmakers worth a damn, work well with actors. McConaughey comes on too strong initially, but he’s in sharp form depicting the guilt that leads Troy to a form of self-flagellation. Arkin is magnificent in a demanding role as a man who, we find out, comes by his pessimistic outlook honestly. His entire worldview is affronted by Smiley’s optimism, but then he’s stung by remorse after he successfully connives to get Smiley fired. Gene goes through quite a few changes, and Arkin renders all of them in subtle strokes.

DuVall, meanwhile, isn’t the first actress who comes to mind when you think of sweetness and light, but she plays her opening scene with a remarkable touch — you learn everything you need to know about Beatrice by watching the quiet satisfaction she gets from making up a bed and brushing away some petals that have fallen from a vase of flowers on a bedside table. She radiates a bruised, angry quality after her accident, but she eventually rights herself because of an experience that she relates in a touching monologue (although it might have been better had we actually seen the incident she describes). The curious, soft-spoken, thoughtful Beatrice is an uncanny presence — the filmmakers seem to find women like her particularly congenial. Their skill at conjuring a character like this is one reason why Jill and Karen Sprecher are talents to watch.


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