Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

It takes a while for this oddball film — a mosaic of stories in the style of Magnolia — to take hold, but when it does, it grabs you hard. Director Jill Sprecher (Clockwatchers), who wrote the funny and touching script with her sister Karen, separates the thirteen conversations about the fragile nature of happiness with title cards such as wisdom comes suddenly, and my fave: fuck guilt.

There are four main characters: Troy (Matthew McConaughey in excellent form) is a hotshot lawyer, brash and overconfident until he commits a hit-and-run and can't live with his shame. Walker (a brooding John Turturro) is a recently mugged college prof whose adulterous betrayal of his wife (Amy Irving) reveals a deeper unease. Beatrice (lovely work by Clea DuVall) is a young housekeeper who sees the best in people — even the yuppie scum whose apartments she cleans — until a near-fatal accident sours her outlook. And Gene (Alan Arkin) is an insurance-claims adjuster with an unreasonable hatred for Wade (the superb William Wise), the happiest, kindest, most generous guy in his office. When Gene is ordered to downsize, Wade is the first name he marks to go.

Gene's story is the most compelling of the bunch, not just because we all know that happy guy we hate — admit it — but because Arkin is flat-out perfection. That little wave he gives at the end is an indelible image. Sprecher reaches deep into the minds and hearts of her characters in a haunting and hypnotic film that, aptly enough, is a real conversation starter.

From The Archives Issue 898: June 20, 2002