This could so easily have drifted into the realm of Full Frontal or, worse yet, a live-action Waking Life. Its jigsaw-puzzle structure is not dissimilar to the former (though it certainly has more point) and its philosophizing gets perilously near the 3 a.m. stoner profundity of the latter. Thankfully, Jill Sprecher’s film is in a different class altogether. It’s not difficult to see why. Sprecher and co-writer Karen Sprecher (her sister) have started from a base that the other films missed altogether: believably human characters that are possible to care about. The characters in Full Frontal are rarely more than curiosities, while those in Waking Life are … well, we won’t go into that. Plus, the cast in Thirteen Conversations all seem to be there because they believe in the material. The stars in Full Frontal seem to be there because they’re the director’s cronies. There’s a world of difference. There may be no more ultimate justification for Thirteen Conversations’ structure, but it feels right. It gives the film a sense of layer after layer being uncovered, of seeing characters at different points in their lives and coming to understand how they got there, finally coming full circle. By the time we reach the film’s ending (you can’t call it a conclusion) we know why some characters are as they are, and where others are going. Amazingly, the structure is rarely confusing — possibly because Sprecher makes it very clear that the “one thing” the film is about is happiness, or rather the search for it, the transitory nature of it, and, in many cases, the impossibility of it. The film hasn’t so much a plot as it has a series of interconnecting vignettes. Early in the film, we find Troy (Matthew McConaughey in a performance that nearly cancels out the one in Reign of Fire), an up-and-coming prosecuting attorney, celebrating a courtroom victory. Everything is as fine in his world as it can be — and then a gloomy man at the bar, Gene (the always wonderful Alan Arkin), warns him that there is nothing so dangerous as happiness. In no time, his warning comes true, when the slightly drunk Troy hits and thinks he kills a pedestrian. Realizing his predicament, he flees the scene, but guilt ruins his life, and he takes to punishing himself by keeping the wound on his forehead from the accident open with a razor blade (something that generates its own ironic result). As the layers of Thirteen Conversations unravel, it becomes clear that while Gene has good reason for his distrust of happiness, he is less concerned with warning anyone than he is with raining on everyone’s parade. Having been denied happiness himself — through no apparent fault of his own — Gene resents it in anyone else. It’s not that Gene is a soothsayer. He isn’t predicting the future. He’s trying to will his belief into being. Yet the film is sufficiently complex that we’re never meant to see Gene as a bad person. The one time he actively — and ineffectually — attempts to engineer someone’s unhappiness, he goes out of his way to undo the damage he might have caused, only to ironically find that he’s ultimately brought about even more happiness in his target. Similarly, Gene will never have the satisfaction of knowing that his warning to Troy proves painfully real. Gene’s lack of happiness causes him to seek happiness in the unhappiness of others, yet even this is constantly denied him. It’s a brilliant and very human concept, and the film nails it perfectly. Unfortunately, not everything in Thirteen Conversations is quite on this level. The scenes with John Turturro are not quite in the same league. Turturro is good, and the idea of him trying to find happiness not by pursuing or doing what he wants, but by doing all the things he’s been socialized into believing will bring happiness, is sadly all too true. Unfortunately, Turturro’s character as written is too dry and distanced — and lacks the sense of completeness that the film gives to Arkin’s character. However, it’s sufficient to keep these scenes afloat. Flawed, the movie certainly is, but Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is essential viewing for moviegoers who don’t mind being made to think.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke