Small Talk

Under discussion: Matthew McConaughey as Troy and Alan Arkin as Gene in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.Photo: Larry Riley

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a series of crisscrossing episodes on the theme of happiness – the one thing that everyone in the movie desires. Jill Sprecher, who directed from a script she wrote with her sister Karen, divides the film into chapters with printed headings such as ignorance is bliss. Her imagination is both literal-minded and free-form. She likes fitting everything squarely into place, and yet the thesis of her film is that people’s lives are fated to be changed by happenstance. She’s a neat-freak existentialist.

The four interconnected and nonlinear stories in Thirteen Conversations, which take place throughout New York, are of varying quality; not all the conversations are worth a listen. In the dullest of them, John Turturro plays a physics professor who is cheating on his wife (Amy Irving) with a fellow teacher (Barbara Sukowa). He lectures his class on entropy, telling them, somewhat ominously, that “you can never go back to the way it was.” In another episode, Matthew McConaughey is a hot-shot attorney celebrating his latest victory at a happy-hour bar, after which he accidentally rams a pedestrian on a dark side street with his car and leaves her for dead. He spends the rest of the movie wallowing in remorse. The pedestrian, played by Clea DuVall, has her own back story as a blissfully upbeat housecleaner who imagines that the rich architect whose home she scrubs has a yen for her.

In what is easily the best of the stories, Alan Arkin plays Gene, a mid-level insurance-company claims adjuster who can’t abide the nonstop sunniness of one of his co-workers, Wade (William Wise). Finally, he decides he must fire the man, if only to wipe the smile off his face, which, of course, doesn’t happen. Arkin brings such a lived-in weariness to the role, as well as full measures of spite and sadness and guilt, that what might have been a touching anecdote is practically Chekhovian. It’s a marvelous, bittersweet fable: Gene can’t abide the man’s niceness, he’s crazed by it, and yet, when he makes amends, surreptitiously helping Wade get a new job, he’s really no happier for having done so. Stuck in a crummy job, divorced, and with a junkie son, Gene lost touch with the upside to his life a long time ago. He can’t even acknowledge his final gesture to Wade, because to do so would expose all that came before. His good deed gives him no more pleasure than his misdeed. Arkin has a great and gentle feeling for small-time malcontents, and he knows how to make their woes our own. He does justice to the human comedy – and redeems the movie.

CQ is set in Paris in 1969 during the filming of a campy Barbarella-style sci-fi picture starring a smashing supermodel in pink leather (Angela Lindvall). After a series of mishaps involving the film’s original director, played by chunky Gérard Depardieu speaking his phonetically comic English, the editor, played by Jeremy Davies, takes over. Davies’s intense, passive-aggressive shamblings are just right for the role of a young American artiste who is directing a cinema vérité movie of his own life while at the same time toiling over dreck. This divided consciousness is a very sixties thing. The first-time writer-director, Roman Coppola, who has a background making music videos and commercials, brings off both the auteurist preenings and the hothouse sci-fi schlock-o-rama. Not everything in this ambitious comic escapade works, but Coppola, along with his sister, Sofia, is a real filmmaker. It must be in the genes.

In Enough, jennifer lopez plays a wife and mother who flees her dreamboat-turned-batterer husband (Billy Campbell) and, as a last resort, takes up martial arts. It’s as if Sleeping With the Enemy had mutated into Death Wish. Clumsy, obvious, preposterous, the movie will likely set the cause of woman warriors back decades.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Directed by Jill Sprecher; starring Alan Arkin and Matthew McConaughey.
Directed by Roman Coppola; starring Jeremy Davies and Gérard Depardieu.

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