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13 Conversations About One Thing (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: Jill Sprecher
Producers: Beni Atoori and Gina Resnick
Written by: Karen Sprecher and Jill Sprecher
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Amy Irving, Clea DuVall, Tia Texada, Frankie Faison, Alan Arkin.

Rating: out of 5

While there’s no denying that coincidence and chance are integral parts of everyday life, films about the mysterious power of fate often feel not only contrived but downright false—random events become a narrative shortcut that exposes the filmmakers’ inability to cohesively intertwine seemingly disparate plot threads. Certainly, Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing falls into this category, a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated vignettes about New Yorkers who, for some reason or another, are either searching for, basking in, or mourning the loss of, happiness.

Written with her sister, Karen Sprecher, the film is a muddled, repetitive jumble of accidental encounters and karmic retribution that is so smitten with its own cleverness—look at how wonderfully unpredictable and magical the world can be, it screams at the audience—that it altogether sidesteps reality. Totally unrelated characters come into contact with one another, frequently altering the course of the other’s life, but the strands that bind them are too tenuous, too artificial, to seem like the work of some greater power. On the contrary, Sprecher’s cloying directorial hand is painfully obvious as the real force guiding these wayward souls.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing introduces us to a number of seemingly diverse stories (each replete with its own cute title card), including a cocky lawyer who accidentally commits a crime; a worn-down office manager who loathes his overly chipper co-worker; an angelic maid who sees only the good in the world; a math professor stuck in a life of routine; and a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair. What connects these tales is, of course, the idea of fate—whether there’s a master plan to life that we’re unable to see (but can nonetheless intimately feel), and how seemingly inconsequential events and actions may, unbeknownst to us, profoundly alter our destinies.

Fortune, it seems, has brought these tortured souls together because they all share a dream of happiness that has proved elusive. Thus, the lawyer seems on top of the world, only to learn how quickly success (and tranquillity) can vanish, while the office manager comes to understand how devoid of joy his life is, and struggles to redeem the past mistakes he’s made. The maid discovers that a simple gesture of kindness can alter the course of one’s life, just as the professor struggles to understand the source of his dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, Sprecher is entirely incapable of subtly weaving these stories together, choosing to hammer home her points with all the finesse of a bulldozer. If it’s not the obvious title cards spelling out the filmmaker’s intentions, it’s the characters themselves, who constantly ruminate about fate, love, loss, and happiness with all the wisdom and insight of a Hallmark card. Every conversation and incident is imbued with such grand importance and otherworldly significance that the film quickly loses its ability to do the one thing a film about fate must be capable of—surprising the audience.

A film this precious has little use for great performances—it’s too busy telling us what we need to know to worry about actors elucidating those things through performance—but it nonetheless gets one from the inestimable Alan Arkin as the jealous office manager determined to quell his co-worker’s unending mirth. With a voice that exudes a lifetime of disappointment and droopy eyes that can barely find a compelling reason to stay open, Arkin brings a world-weariness to his role that that bestows a bittersweet poignancy on his search for redemption.

If only the rest of the cast was as lucky. From McConaughey’s arrogant lawyer to Turturro’s restless mathematician, the cast does its damnedest to augment its performances with a sense of divine import, underlining each emotional revelation as an “important moment.” Unfortunately, there’s nothing of real importance or interest being discussed in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, a film so mired in trite aphorisms that it completely forgets to show us the truly magical possibilities the world affords us.

Nicholas Schager


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