The binary experiences of feeling pain and being numb permeate Tim Blake Nelson
.” Through the actor-turned-filmmaker’s previous directorial efforts — which include 2001’s “O,” a teen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and 2009’s “Leaves of Grass,” which utilizes Plato’s Socratic dialogues while swiping its title from a Walt Whitman poem — we know that Nelson is a student of varying high-brow styles of literature. In the ensemble drama “Anesthesia,” he tries to implement not only his idols’ eloquent use of words, but also grand philosophical ideas of Schopenhauer, Montaigne and others, focusing on what it means to connect with others. Despite a few stylistic inconsistencies, the conceit mostly works, but it helps that this time Nelson has rounded up a talented group of actors to play his troubled ensemble of characters.
Sam Waterston plays a Columbia University philosophy professor named Walter lucky enough to have a class full of enraptured students and buys his wife (Glenn Close) flowers at the corner deli every Friday. One evening, his usual routine gets interrupted when he’s violently attacked and left bleeding on a doorstep. A man (Corey Stoll) comes to his aid and from there, the film flashes back to an unknown period of days before the attack, wherein a number of characters’ lives intertwine in ways that become more evident throughout the ensuing narrative.
Recognizable faces keep piling up: Nelson plays Walker’s son Adam, whose wife (Jessica Hecht) will soon undergo a procedure to determine if she has cancer. Gretchen Mol takes on the role an affluent New Jersey housewife whose husband may or may not be in China on business. Michael K. Williams is a hotshot lawyer trying to get his addict friend (K. Todd Freeman) off the streets and into rehab. Rounding things off, Kristen Stewart is a lonely graduate student of Walter’s whose depression leads to masochism. Throughout the film, these and other characters’ lives weave together, yielding intriguing questions surrounding their connections and supporting the story’s underlying philosophical suggestion that everyone is connected in some way.
Eventually the movie emphasizes privilege, as the mostly white, well-spoken characters wax philosophical because of their affluence. But said privilege exists without a hint of self-awareness. Mol’s character complains (to herself, in an odd Shakespearean soliloquy) about the other wealthy mothers who drop their children off at her kids’ same school without fully realizing that she herself is one of the suburban wives that she so loathes. Every one of the characters is over-educated to the point of ignorance, even the crack-smoking addict. It’s unclear whether Nelson intents to critique these characters or shares their obliviousness — though one must wonder why the only storyline in “Anesthesia” involving characters of color revolves around street drug addiction.
But the movie’s real Achilles’ Heel stems from its dialogue. Nelson’s overwrought script makes the interactions sound like a planned téte-â-téte in which each character has brought their debate team A-game. Everyone speaks in grand statements about life as if every sentence requires at least three SAT vocabulary words. Nelson obviously wants to emphasize his characters’ intelligence, but it’s his writing itself that comes off as slightly amateur and often unbelievable. This is a problem mostly for Mol, for whom the extended sentences catch in her mouth like marbles. Nelson has a lot of substantial themes in play, but lacks the subtlety required to explore them — a key issue for a movie fixated on the expression of heavy philosophical discussion.
Fortunately, Stewart manages to navigate her own lines with ease. She expresses her character’s depression in eloquent terms that never sound forced, delivering the strained words with conviction and an ease that suits her style. The actress has been growing into a great talent since her “Twilight” days, having also performed surprisingly well in “Clouds of Sils Maria” alongside Juliette Binoche. Though her range may be limited, if she continues to choose roles where she can shine, she’ll utilize that to her advantage. “Anesthesia” may be her best performance yet — even if the movie falls beneath her abilities.
“Anesthesia” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.