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[whitespace] Matthew McConaughey and Alan Arkin
Talking Heads: Alan Arkin (right) and Matthew McConaughey strike up a fateful bout of chit-chat in '13 Conversations About One Thing.'

Cursed Happiness

Jill Sprecher's '13 Conversations About One Thing' touches on some novel ideas

By Richard von Busack

THE UNITED STATES is possibly the only country on the globe where there's no native belief in the evil eye, the worldwide superstition that boasting of good fortune will draw bad luck. Thus in 13 Conversations About One Thing, the soul of the film--let alone the best actor--is Alan Arkin, who plays Gene, a depressed executive in a slowly dying insurance company. Unwinding at a bar during happy hour, he puts it out plain: "Show me a happy man, and I'll show you a disaster waiting to happen."

Naturally, this morose man meets someone flashy, someone who thinks that telling strangers what a hotshot he is constitutes the best way to start a conversation. He's Troy (Matthew McConaughey), an assistant DA who's having a few drinks to celebrate sending a murderer to jail. Like the judge from Amsterdam in Albert Camus' novel The Fall, who loses everything in life because of his own faith in his self-righteousness, Troy's disaster begins that very night. On the way home, he hits and, he thinks, kills a pedestrian while legally drunk.

So far, the film displays the open-and-shut people's justice you'd see on an episode of Tales From the Crypt. To diffuse this rigid pattern, director Jill Sprecher (co-writing with her sister, Karen) follows some of the other characters, including the injured pedestrian, Beatrice (the always impressive Clea DuVall), who works as a maid. The bad accident shakes her simple faith that God's watching over her. The concentric rings around Gene, Troy and Beatrice encompass an abstracted math professor (John Turturro), his rejected wife (Amy Irving), a junkie and a suicidal student.

Today, the tag-team movie has gone from risky experiment to being a commonplace in indie circles. Robert Altman enjoys the best success in this field because he's fascinated with cities and the way human beings compartmentalize themselves to live in them. In less capable hands, the multiple-characters-in-search-of-a-plot film can easily give the impression that something's missing. What's missing in 13 Conversations About One Thing is a clear background of civic life. New York is played by Toronto, and Toronto has never looked more like Toronto and less like New York. The various connections made among the characters seem more like the ones that occur in a smaller city, and the overlay of guilty conscience striking all who live here simply doesn't look like a New York problem. The film is so clean and so precise that it has no city-movie energy. It's too clearly about ideas, not people.

Eventually, the Sprechers back away from the void they're suggesting exists. At the finish, good things happen to the good people, and bad things happen to the bad. This essential simplicity clouds the geometrical figures the film is trying to trace; it also sweetens the otherwise commendable austerity of the film, which is best seen in Arkin's and DuVall's performances.

13 Conversations About One Thing (R; 94 min.), directed by Jill Sprecher, written by Jill and Karen Sprecher, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin and Clea DuVall, opens Friday at the Camera One and the Century 25 in San Jose and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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