Published Sep 01, 2001
First of all, we should clear matters up these conversations are about more than one thing. As in any discussion, there are the words we use and those that are left unsaid. The topic may be happiness (Is it possible? Why do some find it and others don't?) but it is our actions what we do to others, what we take responsibility for that carries more weight than mere words. Sprecher's first feature, "Clockwatchers," used long pauses to illustrate the drab world of fluorescent-lit offices and it worked perfectly. Her new film also allows room for silence. Characters in the four main stories struggle to find answers to what eludes them happiness and understanding as they, too often, move clumsily through their lives. "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" is filled with pauses and quiet talkers but they serve a different purpose. There are spaces for the audience to insert their own impressions and feelings. They encourage us to participate in the conversation.
This film doesn't tell its story in a straight line. Although all four stories connect at a certain point, each scene takes place at a different time over the course of a year. Yet all appear to happen simultaneously. This could have failed it could have been a convoluted mess but it works marvelously. For a film that deals with the role cause and effect plays in our lives, this technique illustrates the point perfectly. We touch and affect each other constantly; a conversation that has no beginning, middle or end. The story unfolds gently through sometimes violent acts and small gestures that can change the world. There are actions, moments that affect us in such profound ways that our lives are irreversibly changed.
Sprecher's cast is all strong. Even Mathew McConaughey, who almost always fills me with the special kind of dread, carries his story well. He crumbles from an assured, cocky attorney to a haunted, guilt-ridden man. He commits a heinous act a hit and run on a lonely street and must live with the consequences. Perhaps it is a reaction to not thinking him capable of such depth but watching his descent is a bit of a marvel. The real joy, however, is Alan Arkin. As Gene, a manager in an insurance claims department, Arkin is at the heart of "Thirteen Conversations." His life has not turned out the way as planned a job that has hit a dead end, a not so amicable divorce, a junkie son often in trouble with the law. He vents his anger on a claim's adjuster in his office who never loses his smile or sunny disposition. Why should this man someone clearly less intelligent and capable than himself find happiness? Arkin has the ability to speak constantly yet tell a different story by his body movements. We know that there is something more and will wait as he slowly reveals what lies below. It has always been a mystery to me that Arkin doesn't receive more recognition for his work. He is the glue that holds this film together. It would have been a good film without him but his presence makes it a great film.