Big Talkers

13 Conversations About One Thing takes on some weighty topics

The "one thing" at the heart of Jill Sprecher's 13 Conversations About One Thing may not have one name. But as you wend your way through this intricate meditation on urban solitude and the nature of fate, you'll likely discover for yourself whether it's called happiness, hope, domestic tranquility, or something else altogether. Whatever the viewer decides, the journey is worthwhile. Sprecher (Clockwatchers) makes complex films on weighty subjects -- like the meaning of life -- but she manages to season even her darkest speculations with buoyant humor and playful irony.

Here, she must juggle a big, uniformly talented cast and five loosely connected stories (Robert Altman continues to inspire almost every serious filmmaker these days) while leaping back and forth in time. This can be a bit wearying for us popcorn-munchers, but by the time Sprecher's skeins, set forth in 13 related episodes, come together, we've got as clear a view of the big picture as we got assembling the elements of Nashville, Lantana, or Magnolia.

Set in some unfamiliar crannies of New York City -- no sweeping shots of the Empire State Building or Times Square for Sprecher -- Conversations interweaves the traumas of a habit-ridden physics professor named Walker (John Turturro) who is intent on changing his life in middle age with those of Walker's deeply wronged wife (Amy Irving); a cocky young assistant D.A. (Matthew McConaughey) faced with a moral crisis after he drives away from a hit-and-run accident; the gravely injured accident victim (Clea DuVall), who turns out to be a sweet-tempered young cleaning woman who believes in miracles; a sour insurance investigator, Gene English (Alan Arkin), obsessed with one coworker (William Wise) who strikes him as far too optimistic for his own good and a second one (Shawn Elliott) who wins 2 million bucks in the state lottery shortly after English levels him with a cruel insult.

Using these raw materials, Sprecher and her co-writer, her sister Karen, work like a pair of deep-thinking detectives toward a dramatic synthesis that raises more compelling questions than it answers. Luckily, the filmmakers vivify their abstractions with superbly drawn characters and fascinating human conflicts.

There's an immediate source for Jill Sprecher's speculations. In the early '90s, she was mugged in New York and suffered a severe head injury. Then, during her recovery, a stranger in the subway unexpectedly slapped her in the head. But her faith in human nature was oddly restored, she says, when a third passenger smiled enigmatically at her. That moment, Sprecher later said, "was like healing."

Clearly, Sprecher has expanded on these events in Conversations, taking the time to contemplate the wages of cruelty, the hidden meaning of accidents, and the sources of human hope. She's too good a filmmaker to settle for stock Hollywood redemption. Instead, she gives us something more valuable: a vivid, sometimes surreal glimpse into the mysteries of human behavior.

 
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