The “one thing” of the title of Jill Sprecher’s sophomore feature is: happiness. Everybody wants to be happy, but what does that mean? This intelligent, engaging indie sets out to find a few answers and in the process introduces a clutch of interesting, very human characters. Ensembler, which reps the currently fashionable formula of setting up a series of apparent unconnected people and letting their paths cross, is wittily scripted by the director and her sister, Karen, and well acted. Result is a minor but tasty pic that could attract upscale auds on the specialized circuit.
Divided into chapters, each with a title taken from a line in the film, pic opens in a bar during happy hour where attorney Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is celebrating the conviction of “another low-life,” as he puts it. He gets into conversation with doleful Gene (Alan Arkin), who tells him a cautionary tale about a colleague who won $2 million in the lottery and quit his job; he thought he was a happy man, but he wound up broke and unemployed. As Troy, who smugly claims he doesn’t believe in luck (“Luck’s a lazy man’s excuse”) drives home, he hits a pedestrian on a side street — and drives away, leaving the young woman apparently dead. In the following days he’s consumed with guilt.
Meanwhile, teacher Walker (John Turturro) is cheating on his wife, Patricia (Amy Irving) with a married colleague, Helen (Barbara Sukowa). Tormented by his actions, he gives one of his students a particularly hard time, with unforeseen results. For Walker, happiness, or contentment as he calls it, means accepting the status quo, in effect giving up — and he’s not willing to do that, which puts his marriage in jeopardy.
The young woman hit by Troy’s car is Beatrice (Clea Du Vall), who has been working as a house cleaner with her friend, Dorrie (Tia Texada). A dreamer, Beatrice imagines one of her clients, a rich architect, might be attracted to her; the accident, which she barely survives, changes all that.
Gene manages a section within an insurance company that’s downsizing. A morose, lonely man, whose wife left him years before, he’s torn apart by the knowledge that his son is a heroin addict and thief. He’s so miserable that the presence of ever-smiling, perennially cheerful fellow worker Wade (William Wise) infuriates him. In a mean attempt to get rid of this man whose happiness he finds so annoying, Gene fires him; ironically, it turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to Wade.
Not only are all these characters in some way linked to one another, but the smartly written screenplay juggles time with imagination and skill; the viewer is kept off-guard as to the precise chronology of the unfolding events, which cues a number of tasty surprises.
Standouts among a uniformly strong cast include McConaughey, who gives one of his most assured portrayals as the arrogant young suit who gets a severe jolt of conscience; Du Vall, subtly convincing as the injured woman; and Arkin, who brings a lifetime of professionalism to his shaded depiction of an unhappy man who takes his problems out on other people.
Consolidating the impression she made with her first feature, “Clockwatchers,” director Sprecher handles the film’s theme with a smooth professionalism.