[Screen It]

(2002) (Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin) (R)

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Drama: Accidents and the efforts of others change various people's view of themselves, their world, and happiness and despair.
Troy (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY) is a successful attorney in the D.A.'s office who doesn't believe in luck and views the world in a positive light. Yet, when he's involved in a hit and run accident, his life and his view of everything changes forever. Walker (JOHN TURTURRO) is a physics instructor who's cheating on his wife, Patricia (AMY IRVING), by having an affair with Helen (BARBARA SUKOWA), a fellow teacher. Despite his repeated proclamations of cause and effect, he doesn't seem to realize he's causing his marriage to fail.

Beatrice (CLEA DuVALL) and Dorrie (TIA TEXADA) are housecleaners who have different views of life. While Dorrie is a bit pessimistic while also envious of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Beatrice is optimistic about life and believes that wonderful things will happen. Something does, but it's not wonderful and it changes her view of life forever.

Meanwhile, Gene English (ALAN ARKIN) and Dick Lacey (FRANKIE FAISON) are managers in an insurance claims deparment who can't believe how perpetually cheerful and optimistic one of their workers, Wade Bowman (WILLIAM WISE), always is. While Gene can tolerate other employees such as Mickey Wheeler (SHAWN ELLIOT), Wade's eternal happiness drives him crazy. Accordingly, and while having to deal with his delinquent, drug addict of a young adult son, Ronnie (ALEX BURNS), Gene sets out to upset Wade's applecart of good cheer.

As he does so, the various characters' paths and lives cross, directly and indirectly influencing certain occurrences that change their views of themselves, their world and their thoughts about the balance of happiness and despair.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Who knows when it first occurred, but some time, long ago, and after humans developed a sense of self-awareness and knowledge of their own mortality, we started questioning the purpose of our lives and place in the world.

While religion has answered a great deal of such questions for many people, philosophers and pretty much anyone who realizes they're not getting any younger have contemplated and/or become obsessed with such thoughts and questions and have set out to answer them.

Such is the case with the various characters in Jill Sprecher sophomore directorial effort, "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," that she co-wrote with her sister Karen (both wrote 1997's "Clockwatchers" that Jill directed). Something of a philosophical look at life and what it's all about, the film features various groups of characters that ponder, react to or cause life-changing incidents and occurrences that affect their and/or others' lives.

Like the characters' various views of their place in the overall scope of things, the film comes off as intriguing and introspective, but also more than a bit depressing at times. That's because the bad or negative developments end up outweighing the good or positive ones in the five distinct but related stories that overlap in both character and time.

That temporal element isn't as fun or effective as has occurred in other films from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and others - particularly since it doesn't produce much beyond some additional irony of seeing how and when things play out - but it does make the film a bit more interesting than if everything unfolded in a chronologically linear fashion.

With "chapter" titles introducing the various segments - which is something of a tired and mostly ineffective cinematic convention - we follow the five stories of the various characters dealing with various forms of happiness and/or despair in their lives.

Despite the preponderance of characters and storylines that alternate throughout the proceedings, the film thankfully doesn't feel episodic of fractured. In addition, some of the performers manage to get quite a bit of mileage out of their characters in spite of not getting a great deal of time or material with which to work.

While viewers will obviously respond to each of the stories differently, the most compelling one to me featured Alan Arkin ("America's Sweethearts," "Slums of Beverly Hills") as a bitter insurance claims manager. He's determined to undermine the perpetual happiness of a subordinate - played by William Wise ("In the Bedroom," "Blue Steel") - simply out of spite over the man always looking on the bright side of life. It's a mean-spirited but fascinating role and Arkin plays it with aplomb that he could earn himself some possible award nominations for his work.

The weakest of the stories - in my opinion and despite the intriguing setup - features Matthew McConaughey ("Reign of Fire," "The Wedding Planner") as a lawyer whose confidence, optimism and overall life is shattered by a hit and run incident. Crushed by guilt, his character goes into slack-jawed shock, something that doesn't play particularly well from a visual standpoint beyond the first or second occurrence of us seeing him in that state.

The stories involving John Turturro ("Mr. Deeds," "Collateral Damage") and Amy Irving ("Traffic," "Bossa Nova") as a couple whose marriage is falling apart and the other featuring Clea Duvall ("Ghosts of Mars," "Girl, Interrupted") and Tia Texada ("Glitter," "Bait") as housecleaners whose views of life change are good and feature solid performances. Yet, they're also rather lethargic and come off as missing that venom and energy that makes the Arkin story so mesmerizing.

In nature's view of us, we're here simply to procreate and further the species, regardless of whether we're happy or not or understand our place in the world. I'm not exactly sure of the Sprecher sisters' view of the human condition after seeing this film, although the fact that more things end up bad than good should be something of a hint.

Whatever the truth, and despite some strong performances and a mildly creative way of interconnecting the various storylines, the picture is too much of a downer to be considered entertaining. While not all films have to or should possess that positive quality, that doesn't mean that a viewer being down in the dumps after seeing them is a good, worthwhile or healthy thing. Okay, but too depressing, "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 7, 2002 / Posted June 14, 2002

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