A number of topics may come to mind when one reads the title of this film. Americans converse about everything from politics to religion to sex, sometimes finding a reason to combine all three.
“13 Conversations” is not really about any of those things, though it does cover a lot of religious ground. The “one thing” referred to in the title is quite simply happiness. All those conversations are about whether happiness exists, is attainable, consistent, controllable, and determined by fate, luck or divine providence.
This is a dialogue-driven film, trying to make its way through a summer of visually startling blockbusters. “13 Conversations,”through marvelous, natural and intelligent dialogue, is every bit as captivating as any film playing in the local multiplex.
“13 Conversations” is a film with multiple characters and multiple plotlines weaving together as the film plays out. The various stories are told in the broken timeline form, which has become more prominent since Quentin Tarentino’s “Pulp Fiction.” (Though not invented by Tarentino, he helped popularize this method of storytelling in films.) In “13 Conversations,” this style works exceptionally well. As we understand more, the plight of the emotional lives of these characters becomes clearer.
The dialogue causes one to lean toward the screen, desiring to hear every spoken word. The storytelling is exceptional, and the actors deliver virtuoso performances.
A few years back, professor/evangelist Tony Campolo was a returning guest on “Politically Incorrect” and the topic of discussion was happiness. Campolo commented that happiness had only recently become the goal of American life. He maintained it was an invention to replace the former goal, which was survival.
Now that the lives of most Americans had become so safe and secure, they had to have something to strive for, and happiness became the goal. Campolo went on to say that happiness was not a worthy goal because it was fleeting and often unattainable. Finally, he offered an alternative goal: goodness. One has to wonder if the Sprecher sisters, who wrote and directed “13 Conversations,” were inspired by that late night conversation on “Politically Incorrect.”
This film indicts the prosperity theology so prevalent in the 1980s and still espoused by the far right of contemporary Christianity. The film also seems to say, as Campolo did, that happiness can come and go, and is unattainable in many scenarios.
The film makes a strong case for happiness being caused by luck, fate or even the hand of God, all of which are far from the control of those seeking the goal. Though all this sounds pessimistic, and much of the film is, there is a moment toward the end which seems to imply that though we cannot control the emotion of the moment, we can strive through goodness to make a difference in the world. That is an important message that all people, including Christians, need to remember.
Not since last year’s provocative “Waking Life” has there been a film in which every line of dialogue was rich with meaning and foreshadowing. Like all great films, “13 Conversations”can be seen again and again, and with each viewing, new insights can be discovered.
For those who like movies that challenge societal complacency, this film—through its brilliant dialogue—will make you happy. In a world where happiness rarely lasts long, the nearly two hours that comprise “13 Conversations about One Thing” are time well spent.
Roger Thomas is pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief drug use.
Director: Jill Sprecher
Writers: Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher
Cast: Troy: Matthew McConaughey; Gene: Alan Arkin; Walker: John Turturro; Beatrice: Clea DuVall; Patricia: Amy Irving; Helen: Barbara Sukowa; Dorrie: Tia Texada