out of Five
Running time: 104
Watchable, impressively acted film that’s unfortunately not quite as profound or as clever as it thinks it is.
It’s taken nearly four years for Jill Sprecher’s talky drama Thirteen Conversations About One Thing to get a release in the UK and it’s not hard to see why: it isn’t especially dramatic and lacks the killer punch of similarly structured films such as Magnolia. However, it remains worth seeing for some nice ideas and the quality of its performances.
The film is set in New York and centres on four different characters, whose stories occasionally overlap. An insurance manager (Alan Arkin) becomes increasingly resentful of a colleague’s perpetual cheeriness (William Wise as ‘Smiley’ Bowman) and tries to dent his optimism; a young, triumphant attorney (Matthew McConaughey) is wracked with guilt after leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident; a physics professor (John Turturro) is so preoccupied with his own marital problems that he fails to notice the warning signs on a student he thinks of as a slacker; and a young cleaning lady (Clea DuVall) has her hopes and confidence shattered after being hit by a car.
It’s never exactly clear what the “one thing” of the title is meant to be (just as there are way more than thirteen conversations) but several themes keep re-emerging, including: the possibility of happiness in an unjust world; the nature of luck and fate; betrayal; and the deep-reaching impact that people can unwittingly have on each other’s lives. On this last point, it’s worth paying close attention to both the script and the editing of the film, because two minor characters have a lasting effect on two separate main characters, even though we’re never shown the scenes in question.
The performances are superb, particularly Alan Arkin, who really ought to be in more films – he carefully balances both the likeable and unlikeable sides of his character while retaining our sympathy throughout.
Similarly, McConaughey reigns in the Good Ol’ Boy charm and delivers a more subtle performance; one of his scenes is genuinely shocking and provides the only real emotional jolt of the film. In additon, Clea DuVall again shows why she’s one of Hollywood’s most under-rated actresses – it’s a shame that she hasn’t been given a part as good as this since 2001.
Finally, there’s strong support from the likes of Tia Texada (as DuVall’s best friend and co-worker) and Frankie Faison (as Arkin’s friend and colleague).
The Pros And Cons
The film is impressively shot, with sharp, lustrous photography by Dick Pope. There’s also a piano score running through the film that gives it a distinctive, if slightly distanced feel. The main problem, however, is the structure.
While some elements of it work well, such as the occurrence of repeated lines (highlighted by various captions that don’t actually mean all that much), the looping chronological structure of the film is ultimately confusing and lacks any kind of dramatic impact. In fact, you’ll probably give yourself a headache trying to figure out the chronology, which, one assumes, was not co-writer / director Sprecher’s original intention.
That said, there are some intriguing ideas here and the film is never less than watchable, thanks to its impressive performances, but you can’t help feeling that it could have been something really special.