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A physics professor approaching middle age decides to change his life with unexpected results. A rising young prosecuting attorney's plans are thrown into disarray as the result of a single careless act while distracted. A woman reluctantly faces her husband's infidelity. An envious insurance claims manager with family problems seeks revenge on a cheerful coworker, but has second thoughts. And an optimistic young cleaning woman awaits a miracle, only to have her faith shaken by a traumatic event. These ordinary people all find themselves asking the fundamental question philosophers have pondered throughout history: What is happiness, and how does one achieve it? Written by
In `13 Conversations About One Thing,' the `one thing' that everyone keeps having conversations about is whether or not happiness is possible in a world that seems to be made up of little more than a series of random events haphazardly strung together. Just as everything seems to be going your way, an unexpected and unforeseen `event' may knock you completely off course, thereby depriving you of that `happiness' you felt, moments before, lay just within your grasp. This view of life seems to be rather popular among filmmakers this year, having also been explored in some depth in the sci-fi thriller `Signs' this summer. `13 Conversations' takes a more low-keyed approach, providing a series of interlocking vignettes from everyday life that, when pieced together, provide a possible answer to life's ultimate question.
Writers Karen and Jill Sprecher (the latter also directed the film) have fashioned a complex narrative involving a number of characters whose paths cross in bizarre and often shocking ways. In fact, the film is rather unique in that the structure actually BECOMES the theme, as we discover that events that seem random to us - and indeed to the characters - at the outset actually come together to form a meaningful pattern. As one character says at the end of the film, life really only makes sense when we take the time to look back on it, for it is only from that perspective that we are able to discern the overarching pattern and meaning of it all.
All of the many characters in the film are struggling not only to define happiness but to attain a measure of it for themselves in a world in which they are made to feel like mere helpless pawns, blown about by the whims of `fortune,' `luck,' `chance,' `fate,' whatever one wants to call the `power' that seems to determine the courses our lives end up taking. Matthew McConaughey plays a handsome and successful public defender who feels that he has achieved happiness in his career only to have it ripped from him when he runs over a young woman at a corner and leaves the scene of the crime. The woman herself (Clea Duvall), before the accident, is a sincere believer in a higher power that watches over us and guides us along the path it most wants us to take. Yet, after the accident, she loses that belief, coming instead to see life as a chaotic jumble of chance circumstances, devoid of meaning and purpose. John Turturro plays a college professor suffering from the classic symptoms of major midlife crisis. He abandons his wife (Amy Irving), conducts a meaningless affair with a coworker, and finds no relevance or fulfillment in his teaching job or in the students he could be guiding and helping. As a Physics teacher, he knows that the universe is NOT random, that it does, in fact, operate within a series of finely proscribed natural laws. Perhaps this is why he is the one character who actually tries to buck `fate' and to take proactive measures to change the course of his life. The problem is that the course change brings him no more satisfaction than did his previous life path. Perhaps, most fascinating of all is Alan Arkin, a businessman so unhappy with his own life that he takes pleasure in ruining the life of a co-worker who seems somehow to have attained the happiness that has eluded the rest of us.
`13 Conversations About One Thing' is definitely a movie that grows on you. Like `Go' a few years back, the makers of this film respect the intelligence of their audience. They gather the strands of their story slowly, thereby allowing us to make connections and to eventually come up with the theme on our own. As the film's director, Jill Sprecher never hurries us along. In fact, much of the profundity of the screenplay is brought out by the elegiac, lyrical tone she establishes throughout. The quiet, unhurried pacing of the scenes puts the audience into a reflective state of mind that helps us see beneath the deceptively simple surface of the film's action.
McConaughey, Duvall, Turturro and Irving are all outstanding in this film, but it is Arkin who soars in the key role of the disgruntled businessman. His sad-faced, understated portrayal of a man so caught up in petty bitterness that he will willfully destroy a harmless fellow human being to make himself feel a bit less miserable is shattering in its brilliance. He has truly never been better. Ditto for the other actors, for this is a great ensemble cast, even though most of the performers never appear in any scenes together.
`13 Conversations About One Thing' is a film that feels like it has REALLY BEEN THOUGHT OUT ahead of time, not thrown together in haphazard fashion as so many other films appear to be. And that, given the theme of the film, is exactly the point.
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