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Unable to match the delicate web-like intricacy in a film like this, I feel an inexorable urge to preach heavy-handedly: A film needs no guns or explosions to thoroughly engross and transform an audience, amen Brother Ben! But you're in the choir if you're reading this, so let me move on to the film itself with the preface: You must see it!
13 Conversations About One Thing has a similar feel to two other well-made films: Magnolia and Short Cuts in that several stories are woven together, and the diverse characters share moments that add resonance to their separate situations. There are probably other films that attempt weavings like this, but to be successful, they need delicate handling or the sense of coincidence would overwhelm the beauty of the web itself. 13 CAOT achieves the delicacy that makes the entire work engaging and alluring.
It is also somewhat akin to quiet, talky films like My Dinner with Andre and every film by Richard Linklater, and as in these films, the talkiness doesn't bog down the movie (though some might argue this opinion). In 13 Conversations, there is action-car accidents, self-scarifications, junkies shooting up, good men getting down-sized-but so much gets communicated about the nature of life, that it's a wonder anything but philosophical dialogue fits. Proof that this is a great film is that it can show us truths about out existence efficiently. The medium of film, here, is handled by someone with a lot of talent and a lot of heart, too.
Alan Arkin plays Gene, an insurance claims handler. He's a Willie Loman type, numbed to the dreariness of his life, but still trundling through with a dour distaste for anyone with a claim on happiness. His story intersects with that of Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a D.A. prosecutor who has just won a victory. The victory and Troy's moral high ground make him quite glad, and the cautionary tale of Arkin/Gene, "the barstool philosopher" rolls of his back like Black Label off Formica. But then comes the accident, and Troy, in shock, flees the scene. His house of cards, built on the shaky premise that there is order to society, falls apart and his downswing begins, with unexpected results.
Another thread involves a house cleaner named Beatrice. This beatific beauty, played by Clea DuVall has a saintly quality that inspires those around her. As with the other characters in this film, she is given a test, and it changes her.
How vague can you get? I just don't want to give anything away. I just want you to see this movie. What I can tell you is the one awkward moment I felt in this movie happens when Beatrice, cleaning some rich person's house, gathers up fallen flower petals, steps onto the balcony, and blows them from her hands. It's an overtly precious moment of characterization; and yet, it made me fall in love with Beatrice all the same time. A mark of a masterpiece is that its weakest moment is endearing. (Don't tell the Mrs. about my crush on Clea. She thinks I've given my heart to Thora Birch.)
The Turturro/Irving string comes in and out, too. Turturro plays a physics professor who has almost no spontaneity or unpredictability in his life. What do you think happens to him? If you think a curveball comes his way, you're right. His rift with his wife, the lovely Amy Irving, knocks him off balance, but in an orderly sort of way.
Each character has an organizing principle in his or her quest for a happy life. For Beatrice, it's faith; for Troy, justice; for the professor, physics; and for Gene, unhappiness. Each character is challenged in his or her organizing principle, and each is fundamentally changed. No story is concluded neatly. Nobody is returned safe and sound to the original state, and we don't see how these separate tales conclude. What's delightful is the way they overlap here and there, with characters crossing paths at the right times. Some of the encounters don't even happen on the screen, but are referred to obliquely, leaving a lot for the imagination to fill in.
While not overly happy, the movie seems to have a basic positive drive to it. There is, at its root, not the bleakness of the truly bleak movie Happiness, but a push to comprehend life or at least to experience life fully. I found the lack of irony refreshing: nothing is tongue in cheek here. The people are about as genuine as fictional people can get.
Really, I recommend this fully for almost any occasion. Feel like a great film? See it. Feel like turning off the old mind. You still should see this: the enlightenment isn't taxing.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.