Beginning with its ending and cobbled together via out-of-order celluloid chunks in the vein of Pulp Fiction, Jill Sprecher's sophomore offering, 13 Conversations About One Thing, (also opening Friday at the Little) is as brilliant a second film as you're likely to see.
As the title suggests, the film is broken down into 13 vignettes which involve Sprecher's four main characters. The "thing" the conversations are about is faith, whether in religion, the law, daily routine, or just bad luck. Like Magnolia, its characters repeatedly find themselves victims of ironic fate and happenstance as they flip-flop between the extremes of pessimism and optimism.
Set in a seemingly deserted New York City and separated by intertitles like "Show me a happy man," "Ignorance is bliss," and "Fuck guilt," Conversations begins with the threads of its two most interesting stories. Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is a young turk lawyer with the District Attorney's office, who has just managed to send an innocent man to prison. While he celebrates at a local bar, he notices Gene (Alan Arkin), a dejected-looking patron; he innocently and half-drunkenly subjects Gene to a barstool rant about the merits of a finely tuned legal system.
Then Troy hops into his car and runs somebody over in an alley on the way home. Knowing the legal system can occasionally chew up the random innocent individual (see above), he takes off without a second thought, though the grief eventually catches up with him.
In the meantime, we learn more about Gene, specifically that he's a middle manager at an insurance company forced to lay off one of the office's investigators. Instead of choosing the most ineffective employee, Gene sacks a happy-go-lucky co-worker, just because he's sick of the man seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
Other threads involve a physics professor (John Turturro) who leaves both his wife (Amy Irving) and the routines which he feels have turned him into a slave, only to find that a life without both is pretty chaotic; and a devout housecleaner (Clea DuVall) who is badly injured in an accident and then, as she recovers, is accused of stealing by one of her rich, asshole clients.
The characters intermittently cross paths in unique ways viewers won't initially understand because of Conversations' exceptional structure, which should make it the darling of the independent film community much the same way Memento was last year. (Like that Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award-winner, Conversations unspooled at the most recent Sundance fest after getting lost in the shuffle at bigger, more commercial festivals in Toronto and Venice last fall.) This kind of cinematic construction could prove to be deadly in other indie projects, but Conversations has a pretty strong pedigree behind the camera, with Traffic Oscar-winner Stephen Mirrione and Dick Pope (The Way of the Gun) serving as the film's editor and cinematographer, respectively.
Sprecher, who you may remember as a production coordinator on such religious-themed films as Last Rites and Broken Vows, co-wrote Conversations with her sister Karen. As evidenced by their 1997 debut, Clockwatchers, the duo shows a knack for pegging both dialogue and strangely unique situations that don't seem overly quirky or unbelievable. And any film that returns Arkin to a role as sleeves-rolled-up office worker (a la Glengarry Glenn Ross) is tops in my book.
It’s a little early to be plugging this event, but judging how quickly last year’s inaugural Young Filmmakers Festival sold out, you might want to start lining up now. This year’s festival, sponsored by Young Audiences of Rochester, takes place at the Little next Thursday (August 15) and will feature short films from area high school students. Stop by and see what the future of filmmaking will look like (and don’t worry --- it’s nothing like Eight Legged Freaks).
(Editor’s note: This week’s web edition omits Jon Popick’s review of Checkout, which appeared in our August 7 print edition. The review was based on a copy of the film provided to us by the Little Theatre 1 1/2 weeks prior to its opening. After we published that review, the producers informed us that the copy reviewed was an early version of the film, and that substantial changes were made before it was released to theaters.)
For more of Jon’s movie ramblings, visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER’s Friday Morning Show.