There and back

Movie: 13 Conversations About One Thing

Our Rating: 4.00

Two of the hoariest clichés of indiedom collide in director Jill Sprecher's ensemble drama, in which fates of some embattled strangers prove to be (surprise!) interrelated and their stories unfold in (but of course) nonsequential order.

Here's a viable topic for conversation No. 14: Why does this stuff still work? Following Sprecher's morally compromised New Yorkers through a funhouse maze of narrative overlap is never less than a tantalizing pursuit. The great Alan Arkin holds sway over the proceedings as one Gene English, a middle manager who exorcises his professional stress by firing a perpetually cheerful employee ... then must right the karmic balance. Similar crises of conscience and/or confidence afflict an optimistic housekeeper (Clea DuVall), a victimized college professor (John Turturro), his cuckolded wife (Amy Irving) and a cocky, crusading prosecutor (Matthew McConaughey, giving one of his sturdiest performances).

The "one thing" of the title is happiness, but the film also confronts issues of faith, hope and situational ethics. As co-scripters, Sprecher and her sister Karen weave their storylines into a cinematic game of Scruples that becomes more fun to play every time it doubles back on itself. Innovative it isn't, but it's still the most effective manner in which to lay out the film's dramatic goods. And correctness trumps familiarity any day.

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