Anesthesia (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content, drug use and brief violence
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Sam Waterston, Michael K. Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Gretchen Mol, Corey Stoll, Tim Blake Nelson, Jessica Hecht, Ben Konigsberg, Kristen Stewart, Glenn Close, Hannah Marks, Mickey Sumner, Annie Parisse, Yul Vazquez, Katie Chang
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Screenplay: Tim Blake Nelson
Review published January 14, 2016
Set mostly in New York City, Anesthesia follows a variety of characters, each with their own stories, all of them tying into each other in some form or fashion. The main character that seems to tie most of them together is Walter Zarrow (Waterston, Le Divorce), a philosophy professor at Columbia University on the verge of retirement who ends up viciously attacked while walking the streets on a Friday night. From there, we scale back the narrative to things that happen to a variety of people who are involved in the event, from Zarrow's family, to one of his students, to the man who comes to his aid, to the other man who is slumped near him at the time of the attack.
Anesthesia is written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone, O), who also has a role in the film as a husband and father who learns that his wife could potentially have ovarian cancer. Nelson's narrative structure follows in the footsteps of other ensemble dramatic narratives like Magnolia, Crash, and Babel, and comes up with many of the themes these other films do -- we are both connected and disconnected from the people around us. The title is suggestive of the sensation of being alive while feeling no pain and Nelson's film explores a variety of things that people who are in pain do in order to help them get by, from drinking to hard drugs to extramarital affairs. Sometimes those coping mechanisms make us feel nothing at all anymore.
The biggest draw to Anesthesia will no doubt be its impressive ensemble cast. As with most films that have different narrative threads, some work better than others, and as long as Waterston is on the screen, we always feel like we're in good hands. Kristen Stewart (American Ultra) is also a breath of fresh air as Zarrow's misanthropic graduate student who regularly burns herself with a curling iron to make herself feel as bad outside as she feels about herself inside. A whole movie about her might have been interesting in and of itself, but she's on screen less than fifteen total minutes. K. Todd Freeman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) gives a terrific turn as a junkie forced into detox by his good (and fed up) lawyer friend (Williams, The Gambler), but feels like it belongs in a different movie. Gretchen Mol's (True Story) suburban mom Sarah, who is drinking her way through a distanced marriage where her husband (Stoll, Black Mass) seems to be away more often than not, isn't as interesting, and it doesn't help that the actress struggles to make Nelson's ponderous dialogue fly. And who cares about the teenagers of the film, who worry so much about finding ways to smoke weed and lose their virginity? The young actors are quite good, but their characters are definitely not worth following when they're taking time away from stories that we'd like to see fleshed out in better fashion.
If there's a downside of Anesthesia in terms of being a gripping drama, it's Nelson's inability to avoid giving his characters his own voice. Nelson is obviously a student of philosophy and classic literature, and in trying to make a modern-day take of real people who live and work in New York City and surrounding suburbs, too much of Nelson comes out of his characters from time to time, to the point where it can come across as artificial. Given we have a learned philosophy professor at the heart of the film, much of this is rightfully baked in, but there are several instances of other characters quoting great thinkers, or merely waxing philosophical in ways that feels "written" rather than felt. Just about everyone in life has a moment or two of clarity and introspection where things seem to fall into or out of place in a profound way, but those in Anesthesia seem to always be at a crossroads.
For a film that has so many characters whose lives are an utter mess, it comes off as too pat and tidy for the purpose of the story elements to fully buy into, but I guess that's what happens when you have a film teeming with talent but less than ninety minutes to find screen time for all of them. Anesthesia gets enough of the smaller moments right to overcome some of the larger, clunkier elements, which makes it worthwhile for those who enjoy thoughtful dramas. There's a lot to admire here, and Nelson is nothing if not a very thoughtful, soulful storyteller, but not enough time allotted in his film for each star to shine to its fullest potential, leaving us with the ambivalent feeling of wanting to feel more of the pleasure and the pain that Anesthesia asks us to feel.
©2016 Vince Leo