“We can only make sense of life backwards,” says a character near the end of 13 Conversations About One Thing. “Too bad we got to live it forwards.” It’s doubtful that this character has been reading Kierkegaard, the author of the aphorism this line paraphrases. But in Jill Sprecher’s smart, warm and thoughtful new film, shades of pop existentialism overlie a hopeful optimism that gains conviction by being filtered through a wary, even somewhat fearful, skepticism.

The script is the movie’s main selling point, even though it’s largely made up of lines like this one, sallies that sound like, and are, cracker-barrel philosophizing. Sprecher, who wrote the script in collaboration with her sister Karen Sprecher, would probably rejoin that that’s just the fallback mode for people when they’re trying to make sense of their lives, and she’d probably be right. But habitués of the real world, such as it is, don’t try to make sense of their lives as frequently, or even as lucidly, as people do in scripts like this. The saving grace is an intricate, cross-referenced narrative structure that imparts a ghostly, mysterious aura to the film, and places such lines into a complex of purpose that gives them meanings well beyond their surface significance.

“We probably all want the same things,” says another character, trying to comfort Patricia (Amy Irving), who has discovered that her husband is having an affair. “Maybe our lives are connected more than we ever know.” It’s another of those lines that ought to make you cringe, stating the theme as if in big, bold print. But we both know and don’t know how the characters’ lives are interrelated, and it gradually becomes clear that what the characters say is, among other things, part of a network of self-delusion, and we’re never asked to accept the truth-value of the characters’ claims in any direct way. The characters who think they’re happy are clearly, in this movie’s terms, living in a dream world, but the ones who throw everything aside and accept misery as the only real truth are just as deluded. All the characters are constantly poised on the brink of epiphany, as if they feel they’re about to see through the doors of perception to infinity. The wonder of the movie is how it sustains this odd, almost ecstatic sense of pre-transcendence, while exposing it as untenable, showing that these people will never find what they’re looking for if they keep looking for it this way.

Patricia’s husband, Walker (John Turturro), has recently been mugged, but what she hasn’t told him is that someone returned his wallet, and she found the evidence of his affair inside it. In a bar, Troy (Matthew McConaughey) debates Gene (Alan Arkin) about the relative possibilities of human happiness, but when he leaves the bar in his car, he runs down Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a cleaning woman of unstinting faith (until this accident). These are the fleetingly interrelated plotlines, and their thematic relevance is, at times, all too clear. The lucky characters suffer misfortunes, the believers have their faiths challenged. But by the end, though the title somewhat coyly advises us that these disconnected episodes are really about one thing, we still can’t say with certainty what that thing might be.

The apparently schematic quality of the script is really in the service of enigma. The script has an energy that comes from conflicting impulses–to score its points and to resist easy moralism–so the film is defined by a bracing dialectic between the obvious and the opaque. The schematism is undermined, finally, by the boldly elliptical treatment of the episodes. Halfway through, we start to sense that something is askew in the chronology, but we’re only confirmed in this sense in the movie’s penultimate scene. The episodes are placed against one another so that what each one confirms is counterbalanced by new questions and new problems that it raises.

Each episode bears a title that partly explains and partly obscures it, and some viewers will recognize the influence of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters in this technique. But Allen’s film should by no means be assumed to have originated the device, and Sprecher borrows as much from Brecht’s uses of slogans in his so-called “epic” theater. Some titles repeat utterances we’ve already heard, others forecast statements we’ll hear later, and coupled with the stylized philosophizings of the dialogue, they direct us to hear all the characters’ speech as if it were in quotation marks–not just as direct communication from person to person, but as part of a larger scheme, where questions of measure, purpose and validity are at issue.

The slightly-too-whimsical title cues us to expect a comedy, and the sensibility of the film is essentially comic–in an odd way, as undertone–while the surface of the story remains often dour and somber-seeming. Among other effects, this has an interesting impact on the performances, which might have been harder to take otherwise. Most comedies, of course, feature comic performances–that’s how, and often the only way, you know they’re comedies–but this one has no straightforwardly humorous acting, no figure in the film who stands in as a spokesperson for the writer or director and carries or embodies the comic attitudes of the film as a whole. It’s exactly the right decision for this movie, and one of the things that makes it great, because it enables delicate shifts of tone, letting the movie veer off toward tragedy at times without ever quite relinquishing its droll undertone.

As Gene, a disillusioned insurance claims adjustor dealing with corporate downsizing and a son who’s a junkie, Alan Arkin uses his clipped intonations and sharp, drawn features to portray a matter-of-fact despair. An essentially comic actor, Arkin has typically required a manic foil–like Peter Falk in The In-Laws or Big Trouble–to bring out the verve in his close-vested underplaying. Without such a foil his characters turn sad, while remaining funny, as here or in his similar turn in Glengarry Glen Ross, which is reined in, bitter, near the end of his tether, but finally too humane to explode. Both Matthew McConaughey and John Turturro, actors prone to overstatement, are downscaled here, but their propensity to theatricality lingers, and is well used: in McConaughey’s case to counterpoint a self-important angst against his typical strutting garrulity, and in Turturro’s to show the panic beneath the composed surface. Amy Irving, with her dazed, wide eyes and her zonked-out gaze, still seems to be watching Carrie lay waste to the prom, but in the quietly portentous context of this movie, this disposition achieves some deft, moving effects.

The real find is Clea DuVall as Beatrice, the housecleaner who becomes the victim of a hit-and-run. She resembles the Mariel Hemingway of Manhattan, but has a more reticent way with lines, and doesn’t push them as much. Her half smile is crooked, suggesting a hurt intelligence under the cockeyed optimism, and her full smile is radiantly symmetrical, making her faith in happiness completely believable, and heartbreaking when it, with the smile, disappears.

The score by Alex Wurman is miscalculated, in itself and as it’s used. With its twittering flutes, its fluky harpstrings, and its moody glockenspiels, it sounds like mystery music from the old Columbo or Macmillan and Wife TV shows. It’s extremely satisfied in its own slyness, and there’s way too much of it, underscoring notes of portent in the film that should have been soft-pedaled.

Sprecher’s still developing as a director. Her first film, Clockwatchers, isn’t very good; with its stilted office-politics satire, it was like staring at a few panels of “Dilbert” over and over for two hours. In the first half of 13 Conversations, the direction seems literal-minded and a bit absent. But this could be a form of modesty, and once the movie gets going there are lovely touches: the delicate echo of a glimpse of floating petals in a luminous vision of a white shirt billowing into the air, or the mysterious rhyming effects between blots of ink and drops of blood. Probably just because the script is so good, Sprecher seems highly literary, a quality this film shares with the recent movie it most resembles, You Can Count On Me. To say that she could just as well have been a novelist should not be taken as an insult, but as an expression of a certain gratitude, and an alert to an insular film culture. A dozen novels this good come out every month, but there hasn’t been an American movie this good all year. EndBlock