starring Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, John Turturro, Amy Irving
screenplay by Jill Sprecher & Karen Sprecher
directed by Jill Sprecher
by Walter Chaw Jill Sprecher's 13 Conversations About One Thing, her follow-up to she and sister Karen's Clockwatchers, is an Armistad Maupin roundelay of intersecting stories tied together by circumstance and a basic investigation into why we can't be happy. It explores happiness and satisfaction in the workplace (in the film's best sections, which star Alan Arkin), in marriage (John Turturro and Amy Irving), morally (Matthew McConaughey), and existentially (Clea DuVall), and though it does so with a great deal of professionalism and mordant humour, the film never quite transcends its proximate resolutions for universal truths. Its failures are remarkably similar to those of Clockwatchers in that no matter the polish of the cast nor the professionalism of the narrative, there's a decided lack of spontaneity in its execution and a dearth of real poignancy in its epiphanies.
That being said, the scripts by Jill and Karen Sprecher for their two films are laudably literate and philosophical, finding their true rhythm in precise dissections of inter-office politics--even if the levels of literacy and philosophy fall short of wholly rewarding. Accordingly, 13 Conversations About One Thing reaches a comic and emotional high in the examination of Arkin's little office tyrant and his pathological jealousy of the one man under his employ (William Wise) with an optimistic worldview. It is through this storyline that the picture achieves a kind of delirious sublimity--here and never again, Sprecher strikes a balance between her philosophical leanings and her literary aspirations. The film just doesn't demonstrate the same level of insight when it leaves the office environment; for the Sprecher sisters, perhaps owing to their long-time fallback occupations of temp workers, the office and the peculiarities of workspace are the headwaters for life's deeper ruminations.
With beautiful cinematography of greens and blues by veteran DP Dick Pope and fluid transitions provided by ace editor Stephen Mirrione, 13 Conversations About One Thing is as technically pleasing as a film three times its modest budget. Arkin, McConaughey, and Turturro provide exceptional performances while young DuVall, the best thing about the unfairly maligned The Astronaut's Wife, displays a persuasive emotional depth in a character (a maid stricken by fate and wrongly accused of a crime) who undergoes the most turbulent sea change of the picture. What's missing (save for in the Arkin fragments) is any real insight over its relatively simplistic moralizing; There's no bite in 13 Conversations' irony, and no real aim to its chamber-smart surface banter. Originally published: May 24, 2002.