Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

gen x review thirteen conversationsI've always accepted the premise that enough good intentions could kill any film, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing very nearly proves this case.

Thirteen Conversations follow four people as they grapple with destiny, fate, luck and human relationships in contemporary New York City. The film is strangely beautiful despite the screenwriter's heavy-handed treatment of the subject and the acting is subtly powerful. This is the kind of movie that works on you over time, as you're driving home discussing it with your favorite SO.

Violent acts change everything that follows, but sometimes it's the quiet moments of reflection that have real power. Sometimes it isn't the last slap in the face that breaks the camel's back, but the pretty smiling girl on the subway platform. We underestimate the drama in the everyday, forget the preciousness that bind us to each other, and become captives of our own routines.

The world is full of train wrecks waiting to happen, individuals who are trapped by their own perceptions and can't see that the only thing between them and happiness is themselves. For Gene (Alan Arkin), an embittered middle manager at an insurance firm, life appears like a series of bad breaks. Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a young lawyer in the District Attorney's office, believes in the power of the law and the individual to choose right from wrong. Walker (John Turturro) is a physics professor who doesn't understand how his belief in the immutable laws of the universal has predestined him to repeat his past errors. Beatrice (Clea DuVall) has put her faith totally in god, but only so she can feel special in a world full of compromise and unhappiness.

Each character meets the limit of his or her belief in the film. For some it's an unfortunate accident, for others a miscalculated decision or inability to adapt to changing situations. To quote the bumper stick “Poop Happens,” but we do things to ourselves, too. Because Gene sees the future only as a repeat of the past, time appears to be a prison, a crap shot game of luck. And luck is just a cruel game of giving in order to take away. Beatrice has faith that everything will work out, but when she's struck by a car for no reason she must face the senselessness of life.

What connects the characters in Thirteen Conversations is a sincere desire for happiness. Each struggles with how to understand the mostly absurd details of life. Draw a line between any thirteen people at any movie you will ever see and you would have the same plot line: A story of modern people trying to understand the meaning of life.

If people are hell, as the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, they're also a form of salvation. What connects us to one another is as mysterious and magical as destiny. You cannot control what happens to you -- whether fate smile or scolds at you -- but you can control how you choose to interpret it and who you want to share it with.

McConaughey is a surprise, offering a quietly intense portrayal of a man slowly losing his grip on reality, and Arkin is the definitive “man in the gray flannel shirt,” an uber everyman, barking his lines out with tight-lipped authenticity. DuVall’s Beatrice is strange, shy and utterly adorable, the sort of girl who you see everyday at the library or Salvation Army, but never really speak to. The is a true ensemble cast, an outstanding collection of actors really working through the characters’ idiosyncrasies.

Thirteen Conversations isn’t without faults. The characters often seem like petty philosophical mouthpieces and the resulting dialog sometimes sounds like it could have been written by an overzealous college student, but somehow Thirteen Conversations works. Yes, conversations are wooden and the screenwriter’s preachy tone is occasionally infuriating, but the film is often poignant and sometimes downright lovely.

Just like life.


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