13 Conversations About One Thing
directed by Jill Sprecher
(Sony Pictures, 2001)

There comes a time in life, a soul-wearying time, when people realize that, despite their best intentions, some things can never be reversed. There's a relationship that never will be repaired. A decision that can't be made again more wisely. A moment that can't be relived and made better.

As one character says in 13 Conversations About One Thing, "I can't go back" to the way things used to be.

In a step up from 1997's Clockwatchers, about four young female office workers, sisters Jill and Karen Sprecher infuse 13 Conversations with a kind of world-weary wisdom that's a perfect complement to Alan Arkin's time- and life-tested insurance manager.

Jill directs and shares screenwriting credits with Karen in this 2001 release about the lives of four people -- how they intersect, how the decisions of each affect another. It's less light than its brethren in theme, Laurent Firode's Happenstance (or Le Battement d'ailes du papillon).

13 Conversations also concerns itself with fate, or whatever you want to call that melding of intent and chance. There's Arkin as Gene English, a man who devoted his life to his job, to the detriment of his marriage (failed) and his son (a drug-addicted and belligerent man), only to find out his job isn't going to love him back.

One night in a bar he meets Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a go-getter attorney who's about to find himself with more in common with his clients. Troy's life will intersect with Beatrice (Clea Duvall), a cleaning woman whose illusions will be rudely split apart. And Troy will also, briefly, meet up with Walker, a college professor who's having an affair.

Rarely do those meetings result in a positive spin on life. Beatrice's optimism is shaken to its core; Troy's confidence is shattered; Walker's wish for something new in his life will end up destroying what life he has.

And, just like the best-laid plans suddenly pushed to the side, 13 Conversations argues that the smallest act of kindness, the tiniest effort, can have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. Sometimes, the movie says, you do get a second chance. There's not much you can do to "deserve" it, but it sometimes lands in your lap as a gift anyway.

Arkin is the glue that holds 13 Conversations together, and his mixture of barely repressed frustration and heartache sighs out of every line. It's a role that has to balance the hyper bonhomie of Troy and the relentless cheerfulness of an officemate, but to play it too sour makes you figure the guy's getting the miserable life he deserves. Arkin finds Gene's wounds, and that makes him recognizably human.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.