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'13 Conversations About One Thing'

'13 Conversations' an engrossing exercise in eavesdropping

Saturday, July 27, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

If we're going to eavesdrop on "13 Conversations About One Thing," the thing better be pretty engrossing. And -- in director Jill Sprecher's avant-garde film by that name -- it is. But that's a hell of a lot of conversations, even for the most compulsive of snooping Toms.

So what, exactly, is the "thing"?

"13 Conversations
One Thing"

RATED: R for language and brief drug use.

STARRING: Alan Arkin, John Turturro, Matthew McConaughey, Clea Duvall, Amy Irving, William Wise.

DIRECTOR: Jill Sprecher.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com


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You're not getting it that easily. Let's just say it has to do with fate, and that all the talk about it begins and ends in a Manhattan bar with separate sets of characters whose dilemmas will gradually intersect and overlap. Each conversation has a thematic title, starting with, "Show me a happy man."

That's what middle-level insurance executive Gene English wants to see, as he broods over the happy fortune of others, compared to his own lack of same. Disgruntled barflies are a dime a dozen, but this guy is the one-in-a-million Alan Arkin -- baldly cynical, and vice versa. You want to listen to his every word, first of all because he's so intensely bitter about some guy who won the lottery, but most of all just because he's Alan Arkin.

His bar conversant is a cocky young assistant district attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey), happy as a clam and proud as a peacock for having just put another deserving criminal behind bars. The difference between the lottery-winner's happiness and the lawyer's is that "I earned it" and deserve it, says the latter.

That view changes quickly minutes later on the way home, when the cocky attorney accidentally runs down a beautiful pedestrian, leaving her and the scene of the crime as might any despicable, low-life hit-and-run driver. Small consolation that he's on the fast track for promotion at his firm: Henceforth, he's on the ugly, guilt-induced fast track to cracking up.

"You can never go back to the way it was" is the related theme of Conversation No. 2, involving uptight Columbia University professor John Turturro and an extramarital dalliance with his diffident mistress in a hotel room. He is more obsessed with making the bed properly and with existential annoyance at having been mugged than with the romantic concerns of his lover or the betrayal of his long-suffering wife (Amy Irving).

"Ignorance is Bliss," Conversation No. 3, introduces two beautiful girlfriends (Clea Duvall and Tia Texada), who do domestic work between shrinking sessions about why -- for what purpose? -- one of them was saved from drowning as a child.

No. 4: "Is happiness a curse?"

No. 5: "Fortune smiles on some and laughs at others."

Those are among subsequent conversation topics that make Arkin increasingly furious with an employee (William Wise) who smiles all the time and has a maddeningly perfect wife and kids, compared to the miserably divorced Arkin's own.

Director Sprecher co-wrote the script with sister Karen -- as they did "Clockwatchers" (1998), a satire where John Waters met Franz Kafka with a set of mismatched stenographers in a corporate workplace-from-hell, monsterized by the bosses for their hundreds of personal calls, the insufficient ZIP codes they put on the mail, and a rash of petty thefts in the office. Neither Big Brother nor Josef Stalin could have ruled their lives more tyrannically than the clock. It was delightfully eccentric -- "Polyester" crossed with "9 to 5."

Kafka's influence is no less apparent in "13 Conversations," only this time serious rather than satiric. Sprecher is the German word for speaker, and these whacked-out-of-the-mainstream Sprechers speak their truth in an elliptical way, their post-post-modern time continuum derived from "Pulp Fiction's" original (now somewhat overused) flash back-and-forward device.

But "Conversations" is, if anything, technically cruder than "Clockwaters." Cinematographer Dick Pope lets his boom mike appear in the frame not once but a dozen times. Deliberately? Forgot to watch the rushes? So low budget they only had one take of each shot? Beats me.

Arkin is superb, and his long absence from the scene is reason enough to see this film. There's no faulting the rest of the cast, either, or the soulful intelligence of the darkly ironic dialogues. Lotsa misery here. Lotsa lugubrious, on the way to getting a second chance.

There are redemptive elements. But "It's a terrible death to be talked to death," says Mark Twain -- and "13 Conversations" comes close to such audience homicide.

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