Irony is wielded like a sledgehammer in this Amerindie feature, yet another film about the intertwined fates and overlapping lives of apparently unconnected people. If these New Yorkers are conversing about only one subject, it’s a theme that can go by many names: karma, happiness, pessimism, grace, predestination. Director Jill Sprecher pitches all of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing’s episodes in the general region of those more-or-less-related motifs but never establishes one of them as the movie’s sole thing. The four central characters, two older sad sacks and two sunny youngsters, are either appropriately gloomy or headed for a deserved comedown: A bitter, divorced insurance investigator (Alan Arkin) takes revenge on life by firing the cheeriest member of his crew. An altruistic but cocky assistant prosecutor (Matthew McConaughey) commits a crime and then is haunted by his deed. A freelance housekeeper who believes she’s blessed (Clea DuVall) loses hope after becoming the victim of a random assault. A methodical physics professor (John Turturro) disrupts his routine by having an affair with a colleague (onetime Fassbinder star Barbara Sukowa), only to realize that he doesn’t want to lose his wife (Amy Irving). Inspired by her own serious mugging a decade ago, Sprecher (who co-scripted with her sister Karen Sprecher, with whom she previously wrote Clockwatchers) set out to explore the effects of strangers’ offhand or random acts—most of them conversational, although it’s a hit-and-run car crash rather than a talk that connects two of the principals. The structure and dialogue are so studied, however, that happenstance seems to have nothing to do with it. (A script is a far more likely force than fate to convene the insurance man and the prosecutor in a bar for a discussion of luck.) As Sprecher gnarls the timelines to challenge the viewer’s initial notions of the four stories’ proper sequence, the movie becomes an ontological puppet show; robust performances (especially from Arkin) aren’t enough to make these constructs seem like actual human beings with real choices. Thirteen Conversations could have made its point much more persuasively if it had relied less on contrivance and more on characterization. —Mark Jenkins