Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (15)

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Better late than never for Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. It's taken four years to get here, having been premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2001. Film is a market where freshness tends to be prized over quality, but don't be put off by the delay: this American independent feature, executive produced by Michael Stipe, is a small but highly polished gem.

Better late than never for Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. It's taken four years to get here, having been premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2001. Film is a market where freshness tends to be prized over quality, but don't be put off by the delay: this American independent feature, executive produced by Michael Stipe, is a small but highly polished gem.

Don't be deterred, either, by the arch title. The "one thing" is supposedly happiness, or whatever that elusive prize is that the film's variously confused, depressed and misguided characters want from life. Sisters Karen and Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the film, were inspired by Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness. But their themes are so multiple and slippery - fate, guilt, physics, the irreversibility of actions - that the "one thing" can be pretty well what you choose to define it as.

Portentous as all this may sound, the Sprechers pull together their multi-stranded drama with confident understatement. The several characters, inhabiting their own stories, also prove to be linked - although not always in obvious ways, sometimes directly affecting each other's fates, at others simply moving in parallel or gently bouncing off one another. Walker (John Turturro) is a buttoned-up physics professor who, after a mugging, decides to leave his wife (Amy Irving) and start a new life. Prosecutor Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is first seen whooping it up after a successful trial, clearly riding a wave of hubris towards his own personal brick wall. He's a prime candidate for a bar-room lecture in life's disappointments from Gene (Alan Arkin), a jaundiced insurance man whose credo is, "Show me a happy man, I'll show you a disaster waiting to happen". And Beatrice (Clea DuVall) is a young cleaner whose simple faith in life's pleasures stems from her having been saved "miraculously" from drowning as a child; needless to say, her innocence can't last.

Arkin's Gene is by far the most interesting piece in the puzzle, and Arkin himself is one of the reasons to see the film. In his line of work, Gene has seen all the woes that life can throw at people, but what finally wrecks his sleep is the mystery of how another man can possibly be happy. His co-worker Wade (a poignant, jovial William Wise) is killing him with his bonhomie, pride in his family, and most galling of all, his wife's perfect cookies.

When Gene takes his revenge, it's petty, brutal and shocking - and yet Gene somehow remains the most sympathetic of all these characters, simply because Arkin makes him so convincingly human. Always looking as if there's the faintest of bad tastes in his mouth, Arkin plays Gene like someone's jaded, sardonic uncle in a Saul Bellow novel. A master of downplaying, Arkin is a gift for directors alert enough to catch his subtleties. Leaving a café after an unwelcome encounter with his cheery nemesis, Arkin doesn't quite wince but simply lets his face go cold by a couple of degrees, just before Sprecher cuts away: a good example of the film's crisp economy.

Turturro is also wonderfully pinched as the academic whose dreams of fulfilment are scuppered by his drab, logical soul, the sort of man who sees a rainbow glimmer on the wall as "simple light refraction". After a tryst with his mistress, he tells her she's freed him from predictability and routine, then says, "See you again next Thursday, same time," as he neatly finishes making the bed.

The other strands don't quite breathe so lightly: Beatrice is a little too schematically an angelic soul brought down to earth, but Sprecher has resisted making her too vaporous by casting Clea DuVall, a subtly brooding actress with a magnificent athlete's jaw, right out of a Fernand Léger painting. McConaughey, not always known for subtlety, is effective too as a cruel modern parody of a religious penitent, although initially he seems too stereotypical a Manhattan monster.

At times the Sprechers too blatantly lay out their philosophical bill of goods: it's not very helpful dramatically for a character to tell us, "Maybe we're more connected than we know." But what the film overstates in words, it conveys more subtly in images. For example, in a leitmotif of white material: a shirt blowing in the breeze that links Troy's and Beatrice's stories, the tarpaulin that he uses to cover up his car and his guilt following the accident that kick-starts his story.

The setting, as severe and reduced as its characters' lives, is Manhattan as a sparsely-populated, tarnished ghost town, but a real world, nonetheless. The film is good on social settings like Gene's office, at once dead and buzzing with the routine backchat of middle-aged men. The austere, claustrophobic photography is by Mike Leigh's regular collaborator Dick Pope: in these cramped apartments, diners, washrooms, there's a foretaste of the airless enclosures of Vera Drake.

A miniature that transcends its smallness, Thirteen Conversations... has a mathematical concision that some people might find stifling, but that, for my money, makes it all the pithier. This is Jill Sprecher's second film, but she hasn't yet made a third: she's too good to be another director lost in action.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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