Are we more connected than we realize? Coincidences abound, and continual "small world" experiences occur, yet writer/director Jill Sprecher explores the yearning for happiness far more respectfully and maturely than sardonic Todd Solondz, who milks universal human failings for dark humor. Sprecher lends higher philosophical and spiritual tone to 13 Conversations About One Thing without preaching and without resorting to tiresome cliché. Some may be slightly reminded of the philosophical musings of Waking Life, but that film's pedantic ramblings resembled mental masturbation and was more about visual trickery than serving any higher purpose.
Ever since Pulp Fiction, many filmmakers have attempted to copy its circular narrative style, with most falling flat (Amores Perros being one of the more successful). Sprecher surpasses Tarantino's opus, creating four distinct sets of sympathetic characters and weaving a wonderfully intricate but coherent plot around them. The rhythm, while slow (and occasionally stopping completely to allow contemplation), is appropriately paced in one of the tightest film dramas of the year.
The film opens with Troy (Mathew McConaughey), a cocky New York City prosecutor who has just won a big case, in a bar at Happy Hour, but the regulars don't seem to have much life. He strikes up a conversation with the nearest customer, a melancholy Gene (Alan Arkin), who passes on a story about a guy who thought he found happiness by winning two-million dollars in the Lottery before complications besieged him to the point of begging for his old job back. Of course, Gene has personal reasons for seeing the negative—his son is strung out on heroin and his marriage has failed. Troy thinks that Gene is just one of Life's pessimists, and buys him and the other patrons a round of drinks.
Before long Troy finds himself in a world of shit. Driving down a deserted street in his BMG he accidentally hits a pedestrian, and he believes he's killed her. The camera lingers effectively on Troy's face to show the quandary (with juxtaposed images of the empty street), so it's no surprise when Troy gets back into his car and drives off with only a small cut on his forehead. However, considering that the happy go lucky Troy works in the D.A.'s office, the guilt consumes him, much like a modern day Reverend Dimmesdale. He literally scars his scarlet letter deeper by means of his trusty razor blade.
The pedestrian has a story too. Beatrice (Clea DuVall) is an upbeat maid, working for a Manhattan cleaning service, cheering her co-worker and dreaming the impossible dream of developing a relationship with a well-to-do architect client. After a near-drowning in early childhood, Beatrice feels that she was saved for a higher purpose and sees the world through rose colored glasses—until the architect shatters them in a finely-acted scene that serves as the emotional centerpiece of the film. Using the symbolic eye opening of the doll's head may be too blatant, but these conceits aren't overdone throughout the film.
Physics professor Walker (John Turturro) acts differently after a mugging and he tells his wife (Amy Irving) that he just wants what everyone wants: “To experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy.” He changes his routine and is excited by the prospects of a spontaneous affair with a literature professor (Barbara Sukowa), with whom he plans Thursday trysts. Self absorbed, Walker dooms himself to a frustrating search for happiness that will never come, ignoring chances to make a positive difference in a student's life and in his own wife's.
After all, sometimes all it takes to cheer someone up is a kindly and understanding smile, even when it comes from a total stranger, for we're all truly far more connected than we think we are. Thankfully, Sprecher shares from her collective experience and reminds us of this simple, yet profound, phenomenon in one of the year's best releases.
Treating the audience like adults with a fine ensemble cast, intelligent dialogue, and real everyday situations that make us question the purpose of our lives, 13 Conversations About One Thing is one of the “must see” films of the year. You'll have to search the arthouse circuit, however, since the multi-plexes are geared for teenage mentality. Hollywood might be surprised; many young viewers will find they relate to the same issues that Sprecher's well-drawn characters grapple with—don't we all search for happiness and some sort of meaning for our lives?