Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

by Tom Ingram

Genre Drama*
People Jill Sprecher d.; Matthew McConaughey; John Turturro; Clea DuVall; Alan Arkin; Amy Irving; Richard E. Council
/10 5

The stories of several people are told in a non-linear narrative that focuses on their fortunes and their responses to its rises and falls.

This is the sort of thing people are talking about when they make fun of epiphanic realism. In its verbose script and big-city ennui, it recalls Six Degrees of Separation, but that movie had the excuse of being adapted from theatre and balanced out the despair with some humour. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing sleazily co-opts the trappings of good movies without understanding how they work.

It’s also chock full of broadly drawn characters, winking delivery (even the ever-professional Arkin can’t resist this—his non sequitur closing line couldn’t be delivered any other way), and dialogue that is curiously both by-the-numbers and senseless, as if someone took another whiny urbanite script and jumbled up the lines. Unintentional hilarity abounds, as in the purse-snatching scene (already a difficult crime to portray seriously), where the thief apparently takes the purse, rounds a corner, and uses the strap as a tourniquet for shooting heroin.

With a suicide, a self-mutilation gone bad, two layoffs, and a character left alone and friendless in a one-room apartment, the ending is all regulation despair. There is nothing surprising or creative about this movie. It is made with complete apathy toward craft. The characters—many of whom are not even named—are complete nonentities except in the cases where a good actor has managed to transcend the script. And it doesn’t even have explosions to make up for it. Trashy fiction’s failure mode is still entertaining (see Broken Arrow), but a movie that tries to be classy and fails is just pathetic.

1h44m; 2001; Colour

* I try to avoid using this term, instead using more specific, helpful categories. “Drama” describes an actual, natural category of movies, but it’s a snobbish label. Like “literary fiction”, it takes an exalted (and general) term and applies it to an extremely narrow category that has no special claim to it, elevating an ordinary genre with the same problems and pitfalls as any other to a high status it doesn’t deserve.

Unfortunately, Thirteen Conversations falls right in the middle of the “drama” genre, and there’s really nothing else to latch onto without inventing a term I’d have to explain. So “drama” it is; you all know what I mean by it and this note will hopefully prevent anyone from taking it the wrong way.