Ask yourself if you’re really happy and you might be surprised at what you find. Ask several people at various points in their lives and you will get the premise behind 13 Conversations, a film that depicts the lives of five different individuals and their quest to find and comprehend the meaning of happiness.
We first get a glimpse of Walker’s life, a physics professor whose life has been disrupted by an assault. But his wife, Patricia, seems more concerned than he is. At the dinner table, the two can barely exchange a word. The whole randomness of the event has brought to his attention his general unhappiness and boredom with his routine life. So, to compensate, he starts an affair with one of the university secretaries. Eventually, however, he comes to realize that even the affair itself becomes routine. Patricia, on the other hand, is well aware of the affair and contemplates divorce.
In another storyline, Troy is a hotshot attorney, out celebrating over a recent court victory. While ordering drinks at a local bar, he is told by another barfly that happiness is not what it’s cracked up to be. Troy mocks him, buys him a drink, and returns to his party happier than ever. Yet, on his way home, his life is jolted after a hit and run accident. Instead of calling the police, he panics and flees the scene. His impending deterioration then plays out like a character in a novel by Dostoevsky.
Meanwhile, Beatrice, a young cleaning woman with an optimistic soul has her life and perspective completely flipped upside down. A very conscientious worker, she works for an untrusting client, who accuses her of stealing. This, despite her careful attention to detail and willingness to go the extra mile to make her clients happy. Her optimism and faith in human nature are then torn completely apart after a near fatal accident.
Lastly, Gene is an office manager for an insurance company puzzled by one of his employee’s strange behavior. It would seem that Wade Bowman is always happy, no matter what the circumstance. This unusual amount of happiness even in bad times, makes Gene crazy. He cannot understand how someone could be so happy and cheerful all the time. Thus, he pulls out all the stops to make Wade unhappy, including firing him. When his attempts fail, he is stricken with guilt and must find a way to make amends.
This is an intelligent film along the lines of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, showing the effects of happiness or the pursuit of happiness on various people with varying storylines, some of which are related and others which are not. As random as real life, so too is the storytelling of 13 Conversations. But interestingly enough, Jill Sprecher puts the pieces together in a way that is unconventional, yet flows with a greater purpose. There is a sort of thoughtful randomness to the clips which makes for a delight to watch. We don’t see things in a chronological order per se, but rather an order in which makes the scenes more cohesive and built around a particular idiom or saying. Such sayings are interjected throughout: "Once I knew a happy man. His happiness was a curse;" "Fortune smiles on some and laughs at others," etc.
Is life really random or is there something greater that connects us all together? This film playfully ponders the meaning of true happiness, the notion of karma and luck, and the possibility of hope. It also hints at how one single event can change another’s life forever. The assault changes Walker’s routine, Wade loses his job but miraculously stumbles into another, Troy is living high off the hog until his car accident, and Beatrice has her confidence shattered after her accident.
The film has several magnificent performances from Turturro, DuVall, and McConaughey – but, above all, this is Alan Arkin’s picture. Arkin plays the prototypical businessman: stern, self assured, and unhappy. His presence resonates with the everyman and seems so effortless. In fact, it is his resentment of a happy co-worker that brings out his true nature: a man who is willing to do anything to get rid of or ruin this person’s life. Much like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, Gene’s best attempts at ruining Wade’s happiness are ineffective. And, after realizing his attempts are futile, guilt overwhelms him, his heart grows [two sizes] and he finds that he must secretly try and help the man he once tried to harm.
Like another one of Arkin’s best pictures, Glengarry Glen Ross, this film has the same ebb and flow. But unlike Glengarry, 13 Conversations is not a competitive or cutthroat look at life, but rather a statement about fate, the choices we make, and how things are all connected. The fact that it takes place in New York City is even more compelling because you may think that in a great metropolis, the chances of interconnectedness would be slim. Instead, despite various trials and tribulations, we are shown that fate may be kind or cruel. One subtle event can be life changing. And no matter what the time or place, there is always a glimmer of hope, sometimes when you least expect it.