Dir Jill Sprecher. US 2001. 102 mins.

Poignant, touching, and in moments unabashedly philosophical, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Jill Sprecher's sophomore effort, very much fulfils the promise she showed in her 1997 Sundance-premiered debut, Clockwatchers. Interweaving five contemporary stories into a single narrative, the film deals with the profound, often unintentional, impact that seemingly disparate people have on one another while searching for a more meaningful and happier existence. A high-profile cast, with Alan Arkin on superb form and solid performances from John Turturro, Matthew McConaughey and Clea DuVall, should help this Sony Picture Classics release reach its primary independent and arthouse public. A complicated texture and deliberate pacing, with too many silences and pauses, may prove limiting factors in appealing to broader audiences.

Jill and her sister co-scripter Karen examine in their highly-controlled and intelligent screenplay, those random moments in our routine existence that have life-changing power, often despite ourselves. It may not be a coincidence that the origins of the film derive from two violent acts in Jill's New York life: a severe head injury as a result of a mugging; and physical brutality from a stranger while riding the subway. At the very least, a reworking of the second incident contributes to the feature's last, fittingly lyrical image, which depicts a character standing on a subway platform waving to another person on the other side.

The central character is Gene (Arkin), an envious insurance manager seeking revenge on his co-worker, Wade "Smiley" Bowman (Wise), who seems to be perpetually cheerful and unfazed by any tragic event. Indeed, Wade's good nature and willingness to accept whatever happens to him don't change even after he's fired - for no apparent reason - by Gene. In its light, comic moments, Gene's obsessive relationship with Wade bears the kind of humour and absurdity one finds in Chekhov's short stories.

In an early conversation at a bar during happy hour, Gene tells Troy (McConaughey) a strange morality tale about a man who won millions of dollars in a lottery, quit his job, but then found himself unemployed and depressed. Needless to say, the ebullient Troy, celebrating another victory as an attorney in the courtroom, doesn't realise the implications of Gene's cautionary tale on his life. Later that night, while driving home, Troy hits a pedestrian (whose face is not seen), but decides to drive away. That innocent pedestrian turns out to be Beatrice (DuVall), an honest cleaning woman, who is earlier seen fantasising about a different kind of life with one of her richer patrons. Indie stalwart Turturro is cast as the quietly exacting Walker, a tormented teacher who is married to Patricia (Irving), but is having an affair with his colleague Helen (played by German actress Sukowa).

As an intricately poetic meditation on the nature of fate and happiness, Thirteen Conversations deviates from the current crop of American indies, most of which lack both scope and ambition. Its interconnected, non-linear structure, and specifically the division into chapters with subtitles, is probably influenced by philosopher Bertrand Russell's book The Conquest Of Happiness (which could have been the title of Sprecher's film), which is also broken down into categories (envy, boredom, guilt).

Without a plot, Thirteen Conversations is a character-driven film that captures the ebb and flow of daily New York life in its chaotic, isolated and diffuse texture. Then in an impressive, unschematic way, the story allows each character to experience an identity or moral crisis, and a dramatic moment of realisation, that leads to a better, more hopeful understanding of themelves and others. Hence, firing Wade ironically turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to him - and to Gene.

There are thematic similarities between Sprecher's two films. Although there is not much conventional plot development in either Clockwatchers or Thirteen Conversations, both stories bustle with intriguingly complex psychological observations that are conveyed in an understated tone. In both pictures it's a random, melodramatic act in the workplace that catapults a chain of irreversible events. In Clockwatchers, a fable about the emerging camaraderie among four women stranded in a large office, when objects (a coffee mug, a crystal paperweight) begin disappearing, the women are suspected and one is fired, leading to strains that forces them to examine their very friendship.

However, as original as Clockwatchers was, its tone was uncertain, vacillating between a light TV sitcom a la Mary Tyler Moore and a dark Kafkaesque tale of oppression among lowly-positioned secretaries. Furthermore, the quartet came across as types, with Parker Posey as the wild one, Toni Collette as the shy, father-dominated one, Lisa Kudrow as the pretty wannabe actress and Alana Ulbach as the obsessive-compulsive worker.

For better or for worse, Thirteen Conversations is a much more controlled enterprise. Veteran cinematographer Dick Pope (best known for his work on Mike Leigh's Naked and Secrets & Lies), endows the film with a meticulously supervised visual look. The film establishes a visual link between the characters' exterior and interior worlds. Each figure is evoked by a different colour scheme: golden hues for Bea, rich greens for Walker, sombre blues for Troy, neutral tones for Gene. Despite the fact that each environment reflects the character's particular mood, and that the narrative is fractured, Thirteen Conversations achieves an admirably coherent feel.

Pro co: Stonelock Pictures, Single Cell Pictures
US dist: Sony Pictures Classics
Int'l sales: Overseas Film Group
Exec prods: Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Peter Wetherell
Prods: Beni Atoori and Gina Resnick
Scr: Karen and Jill Sprecher
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Prod des: Mark Ricker
Ed: Stephen Mirrione
Music: Alex Wurman
Main cast: Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving, Barbara Sukowa