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Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

(2002) *** R
94 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Jill Sprecher. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving.

Writer-director Jill Sprecher took the long road to her latest film. It started with a severe head injury, the result of a New York mugging. It continued with the loss of backers and her own apartment. It ended with severe credit card debt and an impressive sophomore feature, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.

Written with her sister Karen, the film jumps off from Sprecher's own story of despair and hope to explore the lives of a cross-section of New Yorkers whose lives intersect in surprising ways. This sort of thing tends to be more than most directors can handle, but the Sprechers deftly weave a complex structure that avoids coming off as a stunt. The construction of time-sliding plotlines never fails to cleverly reorient the audience while clearly delineating character. The ensemble cast includes Clea Duvall as a young housekeeper trying to find her bearings, Alan Arkin as a perpetually testy claims adjuster, John Turturro and Amy Irving as a troubled married couple, and Matthew McConaughey as a high-powered attorney who gets the dressing-down for which he seems to be begging when the film opens. The film's concentric circles orbit one elusive "thing": happiness.

Each of the four "areas" of the film has its moments, but Arkin's insurance office is the most consistently engaging (and, not coincidentally, most irreverent), as he fusses and rails, trapped wriggling between the blithely constricting power of his bosses and the gallingly unflappable and sunny disposition of a co-worker. The characters of DuVall and Irving each display a superficial resemblance to Sprecher's own confessed New York traumas, so in key moments, they constitute the film's heart.

The conceit fails in some respects--the effort to underline theme can come off as overbaked, and the characters can come off as precious (particularly Turturro's awkwardly scripted fuddy-duddy)--but for the most part, Sprecher's steadily grows to a poetic and powerful point that's quietly profound. No fireworks, just a slow struggle between the predictable selfishness and misery in humanity and the tightly coiled power of a simple, kind gesture like a smile.

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