The “one thing” at the heart of Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing may not have one name. But as you wend your way through this intricate meditation on urban solitude and the nature of fate, you’ll likely discover for yourself whether it’s called happiness, hope, domestic tranquility or something else altogether — and find that the journey is worthwhile. Sprecher (Clockwatchers) makes complex films on weighty subjects — such as the meaning of life — but she manages to season even her darkest speculations with buoyant humor and playful irony.
Here she must juggle a big, uniformly talented cast and five loosely connected stories (Robert Altman continues to inspire almost every serious filmmaker these days) while leaping back and forth through time. This can be a bit wearying for us popcorn munchers, but by the time Sprecher’s thirteen related episodes come together, we have as clear a view of the big picture as was offered by Nashville, Lantana or Magnolia.
Set in some unfamiliar crannies of New York — no sweeping shots of the Empire State Building or Times Square for Sprecher — Conversations interweaves the traumas of a habit-ridden physics professor named Walker (John Turturro), who is intent on changing his life in middle age, with those of Walker’s deeply wronged wife (Amy Irving); a cocky young assistant district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) faced with a moral crisis after he drives away from a hit-and-run accident; the gravely injured accident victim (Clea DuVall), who turns out to be a sweet-tempered young cleaning woman who believes in miracles; sour insurance investigator English (Alan Arkin), obsessed first with a coworker (William Wise) who strikes him as far too optimistic for his own good, then with another colleague (Shawn Elliott) who wins $2 million in the state lottery shortly after English levels him with a cruel insult.
Using these raw materials, Sprecher and her cowriter (and sister), Karen, work like a pair of deep-thinking detectives toward a dramatic synthesis that raises more compelling questions than it answers. How do seemingly insignificant events yield profound effects? What sort of resilience does it take to maintain faith in a faithless world? How do we accept chance? Luckily, the filmmakers solidify such abstractions with superbly drawn characters and fascinating human conflicts. In time, we learn that the embittered English has a drug-addicted son who’s been in and out of jail. Beatrice, the accident victim, was struck while delivering a fresh shirt to the architect for whom she worked; he later accuses her of theft. The young prosecutor keeps cutting the minor facial contusion he suffered in the crash. Details like these accumulate beautifully in Conversations. In the end, they leave the impression of wisdom.
The Sprecher sisters’ intellectual credentials are on display here: Jill studied philosophy and literature in college; Karen majored in social welfare. Before making this film, both read Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which addresses how envy, boredom and guilt block contentment. But there’s another, more immediate source for Jill Sprecher’s speculations. In the early ’90s, she was mugged in New York and suffered a severe head injury. During her recovery, a stranger in the subway unexpectedly slapped her head. But her faith in human nature was oddly restored, she says, when another passenger smiled enigmatically at her. That moment, Sprecher later said, “was like healing.”
Expanding these events in Conversations, Sprecher contemplates the wages of cruelty, the hidden meaning of accidents and the sources of human hope. She’s too good a filmmaker to settle for stock Hollywood redemption. Instead, she gives us something more valuable — a vivid, sometimes surreal glimpse into the mysteries of human behavior.