Big Talkers

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing takes on some weighty topics

Jun 26, 2002 at 4:00 am
The "one thing" at the heart of Jill Sprecher's Thirteen 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 -- such as 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 thirteen 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 -- 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 DA (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 co-worker (William Wise) who strikes him as far too optimistic for his own good and a second one (Shawn Elliott) who wins $2 million in the state lottery shortly after English levels him with a cruel insult.

Using these raw materials, Sprecher and her co-writer, sister Karen, work like a pair of deep-thinking detectives toward a dramatic synthesis that raises more compelling questions than it answers: How do seemingly insignificant events yield profound effects? What sort of resilience does it take to maintain faith in a faithless world? How do we accept chance? Luckily the filmmakers vivify such abstractions with superbly drawn characters and fascinating human conflicts. In time, we learn that the embittered English has a drug-addicted son who's been in and out of jail. Beatrice, the accident victim, was struck down while delivering a fresh shirt to the architect for whom she worked; he later accuses her of theft. The young prosecutor feels so guilty over what's he's done that he keeps cutting the minor facial contusion he sustained in the crash. Details such as these accumulate beautifully in Conversations. In the end, they make the impression of wisdom.

Sprecher's 1997 feature debut, Clockwatchers, about four office temps cast into business hell, combined bawdy humor with Kafkaesque paranoia in a new take on 9 to 5. The Sprecher sisters' intellectual credentials are also on display here: Jill studied philosophy and literature in college, Karen social work, and before making this film they both read Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness, which addresses, among other things, how envy, boredom and guilt block contentment. Aha! we are tempted to say: Academics at work. But there's another, more immediate source, for Jill Sprecher's speculations. In the early '90s, she was mugged in New York and sustained 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.