The Films of Jill Sprecher
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (December 21/02)
In the tradition of movies like Short Cuts and Magnolia comes Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, a thoroughly depressing movie that nonetheless manages to entertain. Though director Jill Sprecher isn't quite as visually ambitious as Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, she (and her co-writing sister, Karen) creates a world populated by original characters that's almost always interesting to watch.
While the film never focuses on just one character, it's Alan Arkin's Gene who leaves the most indelible impact. Gene is a hard-working schlub who's been toiling at an insurance company for years, doing a job he clearly hates. He's a bitter guy that honestly believes the world is out to get him, and gets little enjoyment out of life. One night in a bar, he strikes up a conversation with Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a successful lawyer who attempts to convince Gene in the virtue of hard work (indeed, after saying that "luck is the lazy man's excuse," Gene points out that Troy's likely had nothing but good luck). Later that night, Troy drunkenly collides with Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a kind-hearted housekeeper who's convinced people are inherently good. Also thrown into the mix is a physics professor named Walker (John Turturro), who begins to questions his values shortly after being mugged.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a ponderous film with big ideas (the meaning of life seems to be a central concern among these characters), which alone makes the film worth a look. And though the movie could've turned into a self-indulgent Bergman wannabe, the Sprechers keep their screenplay grounded in realism and propel the story forward with a plot that's both involving and intriguing.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing's success is due in no small part to a strong ensemble of actors, with Arkin's amazing performance leading the way. Gene is certainly one of the most biting characters Arkin has played in his career, and his unrelenting negative worldview isn't the sort of trait one expects an actor of Arkin's stature to be playing. Gene takes joy in very little, and tends to lash out on anyone that expresses happiness (witness, in particular, the bitterness he shows towards a co-worker who loves life). The other actors are good, though none of them manage to make the impact that Arkin does. And even though Turturro turns in yet another fantastic performance, the character of Walker is independent from the rest of the film; while other figures move in and out of each other's lives, Walker is relegated to one storyline. That was a little odd, but still, Turturro's presence is always appreciated. Thirteen Conversations about One Thing is a rarity among films; the downbeat nature of the script more closely parallels the lives of normal people. This doesn't necessarily mean it's always enjoyable to watch, but it's certainly an interesting change from unrealistically upbeat movies.
Thin Ice's troubled production history - the film was famously taken away from director Jill Sprecher and re-edited following its Sundance premiere - can't quite dampen what is, for the most part, an entertaining little comedy/thriller, as Sprecher and cowriter Karen Sprecher offer up a briskly-paced caper that's been populated with a host of intriguing figures. The expectedly convoluted storyline follows struggling insurance agent Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) as he devises a scheme to steal a valuable violin from a clueless retiree (Alan Arkin's Gorvy Hauer), with problems ensuing as Mickey's efforts are complicated by a wide variety of outside forces - including the ongoing meddling of a dimwitted repairman named Randy (Billy Crudup). Thin Ice unfolds at a leisurely pace that never becomes as off-putting as one might've feared, as Sprecher does a solid job of establishing the Midwestern locale and its oddball inhabitants - with Kinnear's typically strong work as the movie's beleaguered central character matched by a strong supporting cast that includes, among others, Bob Balaban, Lea Thompson, and David Harbour. (It's clear virtually from the moment he first appears, however, that Crudup stands as the movie's M.V.P., as the actor delivers a scene-stealing performance that remains a consistent highlight within the proceedings.) And although the film remains vaguely watchable for the duration of its short running time, Thin Ice doesn't wholeheartedly grab the viewer's interest until it enters its revelation-heavy third act - with the surprising nature of the final stretch ultimately compensating for the otherwise familiar, deliberate atmosphere.