A couple of months after its Midwest premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival, 13 Conversations About One Thing returns to town for an extended engagement. And if ever a movie could be called a conversation piece, this would be the one. A philosophical inquiry into the nature of happiness, 13 Conversations was co-written by Madison natives Jill and Karen Sprecher and directed by Jill ' the same arrangement the two used for their first film, the droll Clockwatchers. But where Clockwatchers went after the dead/alive nature of contemporary office work, with its cubicles and Muzak, 13 Conversations goes after the dead/alive nature of...well, of existence itself. The various characters who wander through the movie's Hopper-esque interiors seem both connected to and disconnected from one another. Call them The Lonely Crowd.
Or maybe they're not lonely. Maybe they're just inhabiting their own little bubbles, and life consists of those bubbles rubbing up against one another or floating off into the distance. Picking up where the dearly departed Krzysztof Kieslowski left off, the Sprecher sisters imagine a world where things seem random but may in fact be held together by fate or karma or whatever you want to call it. So, maybe Matthew McConaughey's trial lawyer was meant to run over Clea DuVall's cleaning woman with his car, to shake him out of his arrogance and to shake her out of her innocence. Or maybe not. Having seen the movie twice now, it seems to me that the Sprechers leave open the possibility that either there's a rhyme and reason for everything or there are no reasons, just rhymes. Existential doubt is part of the movie's meaning.
So are a couple of major contradictions. One, the movie's supposed to be about happiness, but its tone is anything but happy. (Even so, those Hopper-esque interiors are beautifully photographed by Dick Pope.) Two, the movie postulates a seemingly random universe, but its frames and shots and scenes snap together like a geometry proof. Maybe that's why 13 Conversations was one of the few recent movies that I liked even more afterwards than while watching it; days later, I was still trying to resolve its meanings. Another reason: Alan Arkin's stark performance as a claims adjuster who's weathered so many catastrophes that he's forgotten whom to blame. "Fortune smiles at some, laughs at others," Arkin finally says, philosophically. It's hard to make a decent movie out of a fortune cookie. And yet the Sprechers have done just that.