(director/writer: Jill Sprecher; screenwriter: Karen Sprecher; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Stephen Mirrione; music: Alex Wurman; cast: Alan Arkin (Gene English), Matthew McConaughey (Troy), Amy Irving (Patricia), Clea DuVall (Beatrice), John Turturro (Walker), Barbara Sukowa (Helen), Frankie Faison (Dick Lacey), Tia Texada (Dorrie), William Wise (Wade Bowman), Shawn Elliott (Mickey Wheeler), Alex Burns (Ronnie), David Connelly (Owen), Rob McElhenney (Hammond), Richard Council (Del Strickland), Malcolm Gets (Architect); Runtime: 103; Sony Pictures Classics; 2001)

“The ensemble cast runs with the material and elevates their routine downbeat conversations to perhaps resemble those of a Mozart work that can even shake the deaf from their doldrums.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Jill Sprecher (“Clockwatchers) in collaboration with her screenwriter sister, Karen, creates an ambitious modern urban alienation film about mental pain, that tries to dig into mankind’s overall spiritual malaise due most likely to industrialization and societal breakdowns in civilization. It traces the stories of four or maybe even five diverse questioners of the true meaning of happiness and tries to connect this jigsaw puzzle dramatization into one telling tale by having the stories intermesh.

Gene (Alan Arkin) is a disgruntled insurance man who clawed his way in a lifetime struggle to a mid-level management position but is now seeing his company being downsized and his job threatened, plus he has an ex-wife remarried to a successful businessman (Council) and a junkie thief for a son (Burns) and an insurance investigator under him, Smiley Bowman (Wise), who gets his goat because this average guy is always happy no matter what. Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is a young, cocky, hotshot lawyer in the DA’s office who is on the rise because of his ability to get convictions, but things change rapidly when he’s overcome with guilt that he’s a hit-and-run driver who was driving while drunk. The attractive and religious Beatrice (Clea DuVall) works as a house cleaner, and is accepting of her life disappointments because she believes God has a reason for everything; that is, until she’s hit by a car and hospitalized but really gets despondent for the first time not because of the accident, but because one of her rich clients, an architect (Gets) she’s keen on, thought she stole his watch. Professor Walker (John Turturro) is a brilliant but rigid physic’s professor at Columbia, who has a mid-life crisis and cheats on his wife with another professor, Helen (Sukowa), so as to make his life less predictable and bring him happiness he does not have in his marriage. His doleful wife Patricia (Amy Irving) discovers his affair accidently after he was mugged and his wallet was returned to her, without him knowing about it. She therefore tries to face her loneliness and rejection, as her self-concept reaches a new low point.

The beauty in this spiritually searching work, that leaps back and forth in time without any linear order, is how the director takes these familiar themes about the meaning of life from countless other films and puts a new face on them. The ensemble cast runs with the material and elevates their routine downbeat conversations to perhaps resemble those of a Mozart work that can even shake the deaf from their doldrums. The cynical Gene is seen in the opening and near closing scenes as a barroom preacher giving a young loudmouthed stranger he runs into a lecture about his fatalistic beliefs. While the lawyer, Troy, who is immersed in merry celebration with his colleagues over the conviction of a big case he handled. He solemnly believes in the system and that he’s doing good work for society by putting criminals behind bars, gleefully exclaiming to the loser he’s buying drinks for that he makes his own luck. Both their philosophies on life will not make them happy.

Every character is a real person, someone who is genuinely in pain and is looking for happiness. They each have their say about the human condition, as golden nuggets of wisdom are dropped. The Alan Arkin role seems to be the strongest and central one, and he comes through with flying colors by offering a superbly moving in-depth performance. He might be a misanthrope but he’s someone you might not mind talking to, as he offers his experiences as an antidote to those who only see the bright things in life. He fires the first chance he gets the always smiling claims adjuster he’s suspicious of and then out of curiosity or perhaps even guilt (which he won’t ever admit to) he gets him another job, only to see how the mad design of the universe works in such a seemingly senseless way — it seems the truth can only be understood as a metaphor. Gene’s solid thinking friend and insurance colleague, Dick Lacey (Faison), believes in the gypsy curse: You’ll be sorry if you get what you wish for. This stimulating and most satisfactory look at those working stiffs who have to work for a living, has nothing easy to say but it sure raises a lot of worthwhile philosophical questions and provides a cinematic look at a subject that is usually handled by great literature. Whatever … the film to its credit never loses track of its humanity. There are no villains or good guys, just a lot of people searching for answers in the only way they know how. For the Turturro character, he believes in the absolute laws of physics. In one dramatic classroom moment, the self-pitying but intellectually assured professor scribbles on the chalkboard “IRREVERSIBLE,” as he tells the class you can’t go backwards. Perhaps that’s the most optimistic any main character in this film deserves to get (though the prof gets his comeuppance when his lady friend dumps him). All the characters try to confront the present and the daily grind of living without giving up. The more experienced ones already know that even if you think you’re a good person it doesn’t pay to ask for what you deserve, the ultimate misfortune might be that you’ll get what you desired.