October 21, 2002 -- "13 Conversations About One Thing" is a movie about how to be happy, and how not to be happy, among many other things. The complex plot is a series of interlocking vignettes which are not in chronological order. While the whole of the film is satisfying, it seemed there were a couple of pieces missing from this jigsaw puzzle.
Alan Arkin stars as Gene, a cynical and bitter man who sees unhappiness everywhere, a reflection of his inner self. Happy people make him uncomfortable. They rub him the wrong way. We first see Arkin in a bar, talking to Troy (played by Matthew McConaughey of "Reign of Fire"), a young lawyer who has just won a case and is celebrating. Gene's attempt to dampen Troy's spirit is to tell him a story about a guy who won the lottery, and whose life fell apart because a lawsuit and other problems related to his sudden wealth. Gene is the kind of guy whose cynicism defines his entire belief system. His life is a mess. His son is a drug addict in trouble with the law, and his marriage was over long ago.
One guy that Gene cannot stand is an employee in his insurance company office, the perpetually cheerful Wade Bowman (played by William Wise of "In the Bedroom"). Everybody calls Wade "Smiley" because of his sunny disposition. One day, Gene does something very cruel to Wade, just to puncture Smiley's balloon. The result is not what Gene expected at all. Meanwhile, Troy soon finds out that, just as Gene predicted, he was headed for an unforseen fall, one that would send his life, and that of another person, into a steep downward spiral. Beatrice, a young housemaid (played by Clea DuVall of "Ghosts of Mars") is a relatively happy person. An acquaintance, Dorrie, (Tia Texada of "Nurse Betty"), leeches off of her, but Dorrie doesn't seem to mind. Then her life undergoes a major upheaval that seems to change Beatrice. Can she bounce back, or will she become cynical and bitter, like Gene?
Yet another storyline concerns Walker and Patricia (John Turturro of "Collateral Damage" and Amy Irving of "Traffic"), a married couple who seem to have settled into a boring routine. Walker breaks away from the relationship, thinking he is setting out on a whole new adventure. He unwittingly settles into another boring routine. Patricia tries to get on with her life by starting over, but her heart isn't in it. They each long for the relationship they used to have. There are many other characters in the film related to these three interlocking storylines. One of them is Dick Lacey (Frankie Faison of "Hannibal"), who is a friend and fellow employee of Gene's. He is always trying to comfort the ever bitter Gene.
The stories, by Jill and Karen Sprecher ("Clockwatchers") are all about how our personal philosophies shape our happiness, or lack thereof. The thesis seems to be, to paraphrase an old saying, nothing in itself brings joy or sorrow, but thinking makes it so. Wade and Beatrice can't seem to stay unhappy for long because they always have confidence that things will get better, and they tend to look for the positive spin on any development. Gene is just the opposite, he is sure something bad will happen, but when it does, he gets no satisfaction from being right. Walker is never satisfied with what he has. He always thinks life is better on the other side of the street. Happiness stays just out of reach. Patricia doesn't want to change, but when she has to, she does. She makes a clean break of her old life and starts over, but it is hard. Troy can't live with himself when he fails to live up to his own harsh standards of justice. He has no compassion for other wrongdoers and none for himself.
The stories also revolve around acts of kindness that people do for one another. Sometimes just a smile passed between strangers can make all the difference to a person who just needs a little connection to other people to get back on track. Although several of these stories are very sad, there is always a hint of hope around the edges, maybe not as much hope as Wade, the eternal optimist, has, but some hope for better times ahead. It is significant that the film takes place in New York City, a place, at least before 9-11, that had a reputation for masses of people living in isolation from each other in their own personal spaces. This film shows that New Yorkers, like the rest of us, need that connection to other people, and those blessed acts of kindness.
At the end of the film, it seemed like most of the stories wrapped up in some fashion or other, but some stories were sort of left hanging without any kind of resolution. This would not have mattered except for the fact that the characters were so compelling I really wanted to know what happened to them. It was unsatisfying, but also a testament to the effectiveness of the film in developing all these diverse characters and drawing the viewer into their lives. This film rates a B.
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