13 Conversations About One Thing
**1/2 (out of four)
By Ryan Bartelmay

13 Conversations About One Thing will unfortunately never penetrate America’s heartland. This summer, amid sweltering humidity, the mall megaplexes of America will remain dominated by Spiderman and Star Wars: Episode II. This doesn’t mean that 13 Conversations is without merit. Quite the contrary: it’s without summer blockbusterness, meaning it’s absolutely free of action sequences. It’s one of those ambitious movies that falls under the "art film" heading, that horrible branding that’s synonymous with making no money and not playing anywhere except NYC and LA and possibly a few "art theaters" in the metropolises. That’s unfortunate because 13 Conversations is one of those rare movies whose artiness is scaled back so far that what is left is a movie with wide thematic appeal.

13 Conversations involves five interconnected stories, in the tradition of P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Nashville. However, Jill Sprecher’s film (her debut film was 1997’s Clockwatchers) is more philosophical: what we get is at times a heavy-handed meditation on happiness, instead of a character study. Happiness is the thread holding this film together: the pursuit of happiness, the running from it, the head scratching in spite of it. Sprecher and her sister Karen (who assisted in the penning of the script) are quite literary in their approach. By literary, I mean they take no steps to hide their theme; every nuance and line of dialogue benefits the sisters’ essay—and that’s what the movie feels like in its lesser moments: an essay. 13 Conversations is unashamed to take its theme seriously, and when it does—and it often does—the movie plays more like an inquiry into the nature of happiness or a clear-eyed argument for randomness and fate than a fictional film. (It has been purported that the sisters read Bertrand Russell’s A Conquest of Happiness before writing the script.)

Ever since Pulp Fiction the "art movie" has been obsessed with structure. 13 Conversations is no exception; the narrative slides effortlessly forward and backward, ultimately ending where it began, a la Mobius strip/a la Pulp Fiction. Where it starts and ends is in a NYC barroom, where pessimistic Gene (played flawlessly and wonderfully by Alan Arkin) delivers a smackdown bit o’ world worn wisdom to Troy, a cock-sure, hot-to-trot district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) who is coming off, as he says, "putting away another bad-guy." Gene, an insurance claims adjuster, has recently been downsized out of a job, while Troy, in a few short minutes (real-time minutes, not movie minutes) will leave the bar and be metaphorically knocked off his high horse.

The other principal parts belong to Clea DuVall and John Turturro. DuVall’s Beatrice is a maid who believes that because she was saved from drowning as a child, her life has some sort of pre-scripted greatness in store for her. Turturro’s Walker is a straitlaced Columbia University physics professor. His playing of Walker recalls Turturro’s character Al Fountain from Tom DiCillo’s Box of Moonlight. In an attempt to shakeup his routine, Walker enters an affair, only to realize after his wife leaves him that his actions are irreversible.

Sprecher weaves the characters’ stories to create a tapestry of opportunities missed, lost, and found. As their lives collide, mesh, and bounce off one another, we see the characters in moments of highs and lows, but linked in their befuddlement. None ever realizes what constitutes happiness. This is the winning success of 13 Conversations. Sprecher resists the urge to end the movie in cardboard box and peanut-packing neatness. Instead, it ends with a sigh and a shrug—tipping its hat to the randomness and mystery of life and its peculiar servings of fate.