Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Clockwatchers (1997), the previous film collaboration by Madison, Wisconsin's Sprecher sisters (Jill, director, Karen, screenwriter), was a fairly entertaining indie about temps in a dysfunctional workplace, nothing extraordinary. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, the Sprechers' new film, is not just a stretch. It's a revelation: the best American film of the year 2002, beautifully observed and written, wonderfully acted by a superb ensemble, and courageous in the Sprechers' insistence on confronting big themes and important philosophical questions.
It may remind you in its ambition and scope of Short Cuts, in its dedication to intense moral issues of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, in its Biblical fervor of Kieslowski's The Decalogue. But Thirteen Conversations has a life and mind of its own: spiritual, metaphysical, humanist.
And personal. The movie is an attempt by filmmaker Sprecher to make sense out of traumatic moments in her life. A nice midwest girl arriving in New York in the early 90s, she was severely mugged and landed in a hospital with a brain concussion. After that, her life spiralled downward into depression. Nothing was good, people were rotten, she was dreadfully sad. Until that karmic day: a person on the street, a stranger, smiled at her. Really smiled. And the curse was hallelujah! lifted.
The subject of Sprecher's film, the topic of all those conversations: Happiness. What everyone (Sprecher too) covets, what bounces about like a steaming potato, what some can't recognize when it stoops on their face. Is it about family? Freedom? Job? Attitude? Winning the lottery? Is happiness a mirage in the frantic big city, where Thirteen Conversations takes place?
Maybe happiness is overrated? Is it only for spoiled, self-deceived Yuppies? Or rose-glasses dummies who don't know the score?
Thirteen Conversations is structured as a series of interconnected parables, including tales of characters who claim they are happy. There's Troy (a marvelously smug Matthew McConaughey), a Bonfire of the Vanities poster boy who, as a DA, thrives on sending the guilty down the river. The system works, and Troy celebrates his triumphs by drinking it up at Happy Hour, getting a jukebox to play "Put On a Happy Face."
Troy gets his comeuppance. Heaven may/may not be watching, but lasting joy is not in the cards for such a consummate shit. Driving in his lush sportscar, a present from daddy, Troy catapults into some Twilight Zone and, in the dizziness, a young woman lies bleeding and comatose in front of his automobile. Troy flees into the night, becoming the scummy criminal he thirsts to place behind bars. He's never the same after, a gloomy mess, reminded evermore about his sinfulness by a bleeding scar (which he makes bleed!) on his forehead. A mark of Cain?
The other happy guy, Wade Bowman (William Wise), an insurance agent, is... a happy guy. He adores his wife and kids, his job, his co-workers. He brings flowers to his spouse, tomatoes from his garden to the office guys. He's so upbeat and cheery, and wants so much good for everyone, that his cynical, jaded boss, Gene (a brilliantly sardonic Alan Arkin), is compelled to bring him down. Wade's fired for no reason, just so Gene can see him deflated and defeated.
The Sprechers imply: We should all be Wade "Smiley" Bowman! Genuine happiness is great stuff! Gene, spiteful and jealous and unhappy, could rot in hell for what he did to Wade.
But Thirteen Conversations is also about second chances, forgiveness, and possibilities of grace. Gene, increasingly guilty for his dastardly deed, works back-of-the-scenes to find unemployed Wade a job. Wade takes it, and loves it! Happiness! Gene is still floundering at movie's end, far from happy, but there's hope for his salvation. He even mumbles, "You've got to believe in something."
There's little chance for another character, Walker (John Torturro), a math professor who bolts from his wife (Amy Irving) and takes a mistress (Barbara Sukowa) in a stab at "freedom," what he equates with happiness. Walker is self-deceived. Character is also fate, and he's the most rigid, anal, sour person in the world.
That leaves Beatrice (Clea Duvall), blonde, sensitive, angelic, and clearly filmmaker Sprecher's autobiographical ego. As in Sprecher's real life, there's the fearsome accident, the concussion, the ensuing depression, and, yes, there's that transcendant, life-saving smile.
Mostly depressing stuff? Not if you look at Thirteen Conversations in the right light. At a dim time of cinema, it can rejuvenate faith in American movies.