Very timely `Conversations'

Pessimistic crowd finds it difficult to avoid possibilities

July 26, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Fate is a cruel mistress. But maybe not as cruel as we've been led to believe.

That may not be a real popular concept in this age of self-centered fatalism and bumper stickers that explain, "Stuff Happens." But it's the idea behind Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, writer-director Jill Sprecher's circular drama in which a cross-section of world-weary New Yorkers avoid optimism at all costs, only to discover it can't be dismissed so easily.

This fleetingly autobiographical film -- the character played by Clea DuVall has things happen to her, including some serious injuries and a chance encounter with a smiling man, that Sprecher lifted from her own life story -- threatens to be too ponderously self-conscious and jaded. It also continues the soon-to-become tiresome trend of fashioning movies out of several tangentially connected story strands (Magnolia, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, Short Cuts), where the shared central conceit is meant to reveal some big truth.

But Thirteen Conversations, which Sprecher wrote with her sister, Karen, leavens its mood just when leavening is called for. The Sprecher sisters betray an unexpectedly deft touch that, combined with a handful of standout performances and dialogue that manages to sound both textured and natural, makes for a movie that is compassionate, revelatory and honestly profound.

The characters are universally unhappy, sometimes deservedly, sometimes determinedly. Matthew McConaughey is perhaps a little-too self-consciously somber as a cocky prosecuting attorney knocked down to earth by his involvement in a hit-and-run accident. Amy Irving is a woman who discovers her college-math-professor husband (John Turturro) is cheating on her because he wants a little fizz in his life. Duvall plays a young woman whose eternal optimism, the result of a life-saving vision she had as a young girl, is put to a severe test.

In the strongest storyline, one that would have made a compelling movie all on its own, Alan Arkin plays the chief of a group of claims adjusters working for a financially troubled insurance firm. Arkin's Gene is so eternally ticked off at a world he believes has never given him anything, and is so soured on happiness as even a passing possibility, that he fires one of his adjusters just to make the guy stop smiling.

Thirteen Coversations avoids pretension by never trying to be more than it is -- an acknowledgment that things frequently are not as bad as they seem. That's a concept that deserves a little spreading.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Starring Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Amy Irving, Clea DuVall

Directed and co-written by Jill Sprecher

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R (language and brief drug use)

Time 102 minutes

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