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13 Conversations about One Thing
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

Manhattan isn’t Gilligan’s Island, but a character so minor she doesn’t merit a name may be carrying the central message in Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. In response to a description of the City as a cold hearted, fear-driven place, the anonymous character says “…underneath it all, maybe we want the same thing. Maybe we’re more connected than we know.”

In the credits, this character is called ‘Neighbor’. 13 Conversations is a pastiche, a collection of types of people familiar to each of us. And the ‘neighbor’ is ‘the good Samaritan’, one of several references to biblical figures in Sprecher’s film.
Sprecher asks a lot of her audience. It’s risky to make a film about ideas. Mayhem, sex, romance and pyrotechnics, the stimulants we’re offered in ever increasing doses by Hollywood, are mostly absent in 13 Conversations.
Without these stimulants, what are we left with? What do we want?
With wry irony, Sprecher delivers the answer from the lips of the one character in the film least capable of translating the abstract into the actual. He’s a physics professor named Walker, played with a brilliant spooky flatness by John Turturro. Twice in the film he’s asked what he wants – the first time, by his wife. “What everyone wants,” he says, “I want to experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy.”
Not a bad answer, but watching Walker wend his way through the world is an uncomfortable experience. He is utterly without a sense of humor. It’s like programming a robot with a library of self-help books and expecting something human to surface from the metal and circuitry. Walker knows what to say but not how to act. He believes in formulas and the incontrovertible laws of physics. Turturro infuses Walker with a combination of naivete and certitude, and just enough self consciousness to recognize the wreckage of his own life. But he lacks compassion and fails to recognize that others, too,
feel pain.
The narrative structure of 13 Conversations is a bit unconventional. It pivots temporally around a conversation at a bar. We follow episodes in the lives of a handful of New Yorkers. The action jumps backward and forward in time, a devise that allows us to witness the common thread that connects the characters to one another without necessarily revealing it to the characters themselves.
I’ve heard the complaint that 13 Conversations is all head and no heart, a talky exercise by an inexperienced director. I strongly disagree with that view. To be sure, the film is an exploration of ideas. But the ideas are played out in flesh & blood characters who find themselves in challenging situations. I found them believable, sometimes loveable, and always interesting.
And the central idea, the pursuit of happiness, has transfixed humanity for eons. 13 Conversations is an artful addition to that endless conversation.

It’s not a flashy film and it’s not a feel good film. But it’s a well made film. The script, written by Karen and Jill Sprecher, never lags. The cinematography captures the feel of New York, its exteriors and interiors. And editor Stephen Mirrione makes beautiful use of sound and dialogue to bridge many of the cuts.
If you need gun shots or car chases to punctuate a scene, 13 Conversations might be a bit of a stretch. But if you cherish good writing, good acting and quick but accurate portraits of the human family, don’t miss 13 Conversations About 1 Thing.
13 Conversations is playing at The Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton

Copyright Dennis Morton 2002