Clockwatchers, the 1997 film by Madisonís Sprecher sisters (Jill directed; she and Karen wrote the screenplay), was an entertaining indie about temps in a dysfunctional workplace, nothing extraordinary. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, the Sprechersí new film, is not just a stretch. Itís a revelation, the best American film so far this year, beautifully observed and written, wonderfully acted by a superb ensemble, and courageous in the Sprechersí insistence on confronting big themes and important philosophical questions. It may remind you in its ambition and scope of Short Cuts, in its dedication to intense moral issues of Woody Allenís Crimes and Misdemeanors, in its Biblical fervor of Krzysztof Kieslowskiís The Decalogue. But Thirteen Conversations has a life and mind of its own: spiritual, metaphysical, humanist. And personal.
The movie (which opens at the Kendall Square and the Embassy this Friday) is an attempt by Jill Sprecher to make sense out of traumatic moments in her life. A nice Midwestern girl arriving in New York in the early í90s, she was mugged and landed in hospital with a concussion. After that, her life spiraled downward into depression. Nothing was good, people were rotten, she was dreadfully sad. Until that karmic day when a person on the street, a stranger, smiled at her. Really smiled. And the curse was ó hallelujah! ó lifted.
The subject of Jillís film, the topic of all those conversations, is happiness. What everyone (Sprecher too) covets, what bounces about like a steaming potato, what some canít recognize when itís all over their faces. Is it about family? Freedom? A job? Attitude? Winning the lottery? Is happiness a mirage in the frantic big city, where Thirteen Conversations takes place? Maybe happiness is overrated? Is it only for spoiled, self-deceived yuppies? Or rose-glasses dummies who donít know the score? Thirteen Conversations is structured as a series of interconnected parables, including tales about characters who claim they are happy.
Thereís Troy (a marvelously smug Matthew McConaughey), a Bonfire of the Vanities poster-boy DA who thrives on sending the guilty down the river. The system works, and Troy celebrates his triumphs by drinking it up at happy hour and getting a jukebox to play "Put On a Happy Face." Heaven may or may not be watching, but lasting joy is not in the cards for such a consummate shit. Driving in his lush sports car, a present from daddy, he catapults into some twilight zone. Result: a young woman lies bleeding and unconscious in front of his automobile. Troy flees into the night, becoming the same kind of scummy criminal heís always thirsted to place behind bars. Heís never the same afterward, a gloomy mess reminded of his sin by a bleeding scar (which he makes bleed!) on his forehead. The mark of Cain?
The other happy guy, insurance agent Wade Bowman (William Wise), is . . . a happy guy. He adores his wife and kids, his job, his co-workers. He brings flowers to his wife, tomatoes from his garden to the office guys. Heís so upbeat and cheery that his cynical, jaded boss, Gene (a brilliantly sardonic Alan Arkin), feels compelled to bring him down. Wade is fired just so Gene can see him deflated and defeated. The Sprechers imply that we should all be Wade "Smiley" Bowman! Genuine happiness is great stuff!
Gene, spiteful and jealous and unhappy, could rot in Hell for what he did to Wade. But Thirteen Conversations is also about second chances, forgiveness, and the possibility of grace. Guilt over his dastardly deed compels Gene to find unemployed Wade a job. Wade takes it and loves it! Happiness! Gene is still floundering at the movieís end, but thereís hope for him. He even mumbles, "Youíve got to believe in something."
Thereís little chance for Walker (John Turturro), a mathematics professor who bolts from his wife (Amy Irving) and takes a mistress (Barbara Sukowa) in a stab at "freedom," which he equates with happiness. Walker is self-deceived: character is also fate, and heís the most rigid, anal, sour person in the world. That leaves Beatrice (Clea DuVall), blonde, sensitive, angelic, and clearly Jill Sprecherís autobiographical ego. As in Sprecherís real life, thereís the fearsome accident, the concussion, the ensuing depression, and, yes, thereís that transcendent, life-saving smile. Mostly depressing stuff? Not if you look at Thirteen Conversations in the right light. At a dim time for cinema, it can rejuvenate your faith in American movies.
Gerald Peary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org