If there are ten million-plus stories in the naked city of New York, then writer/director Tim Blake Nelson focuses in on about practically a dozen personal ones in his slightly overcrowded fifth directorial effort. All these stories are connected by familial bonds, both secure and stressed, touch upon the flipside of economic strata, fated chance, and as the title suggests, the deadening ways we cope with the harsh realities of life and existence. And while Nelson’s monologue-prone interconnectedness is perhaps less contrived than the Guillermo Arriaga screenplays directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu in the early aughts on a foundational story level— some of these connections aren’t as haphazard and make a bit more sense in the milieu — “Anesthesia” is still an uneven effort that strains itself in communicating its overwrought themes. But as hackneyed as the movie can sound at times, “Anesthesia,” is generally never trite (save one collect-all-the-characters montage that just reaches the tipping point), it’s often engaging and features some admirable performances across the board from its strong ensemble cast.
Acting as the ballast of “Anesthesia” and its disparate stories is Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston), a celebrated philosophy professor at Columbia University, who is well-respected, beloved, and willfully staring down the end of his career to spend more time with his faithful wife, Marcia (Glenn Close), but also to just take stock of his life. His son, Adam (Tim Blake Nelson), is overburdened with issues, including a wife who may have cancerous tumors (Jessica Hecht) and teenage children who are brilliant, but smoke too much pot (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks). One of his talented students, Sophie (Kristen Stewart), is also suffering; she’s an alienated and despondent self-mutilator who feels too much and perhaps is taking the existential philosophy studies just a little too far.
The other corners of this New York universe contain seemingly unconnected characters: a heroin addict, Joe (K. Todd Freeman), and his loyal, lawyer best friend, Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams) trying to get him clean. And then there’s the boozy housewife, Sarah (Gretchen Mol), and her distant husband, Sam (Corey Stoll), whose dalliance with this mistress, Nicole (Mickey Sumner), is tearing the fabric of the family apart, unbeknownst to the oblivious wife.
Blake weaves a multipart story where all these intricate pieces obviously intersect, some organically and some in a more massaged and manufactured fashion. While many of these stories are credible, emotional and captivating in their own state —having a good cast helps — the larger thematic writing delves too close to clichés. All of these characters are linked by their need for escapism and to numb the pain of existence. Joe uses heroin, Sarah the booze, Sam sex, the two Zarrow kids, Ella and Hal, pot, Sophie self-laceration, and on and on and so forth. And while all these disaffected people pick their poison with which to self-medicate, Waterston’s character is like the chorus; lecturing to his class, but really just hammering home the movie’s themes of human anguish, disillusionment and fairly well-worn notions of life, its worth and value, and what it all means in the end.
It should be said, if this all sounds especially pedestrian, Nelson’s monologues, while occasionally blustery and longwinded, are also thought-provoking and even strike some poetic notes. This is because Nelson is clearly hyper-literate, possibly brilliant and probably more well read than you and I will ever be. His facility with dense philosophical language, existential concerns and the like, is impressive and genuine. But soliloquies aside, as poetically reflective as some of them can be, they don’t make a movie. Some of these ideas Nelson already explored in the more layered, entertaining, and very underrated “Leaves Of Grass” with Edward Norton, but with “Anesthesia,” the semi dour, everyone-feels-pain seriousness is nowhere near as inviting.
MVP acting awards go to Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart and K. Todd Freeman (Tony Award winner for “The Song of Jacob Zulu”). All three of them bring convincing humanity to their roles. Waterston taps into his role as an elder statesman effortlessly, imparting boundless empathy and curiosity for the world. Freeman reveals the sorrow and torment of never fulfilling his talented promise, instead becoming trapped in a cycle of drugs. And Stewart, while perhaps a perfect fit for a morose and sullen character, still exposes herself in a deeply personal and touching manner. The Zarrow children, Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks, are nice finds, too, and we’ll surely see good things from them in the future.
But while these actors bring life and energy to the picture, the movie itself cannot quite sell what it is advertising. Part love letter to New York, part meditation on the difficulties of city life, Nelson eventually attempts to bite off more than he can chew —especially when trying to say something about privilege, status, and economic security. Most of these characters have advantaged lives, but the crescendo of the movie tries to force us to reexamine our presuppositions in a misguided manner. Trying to convey that life is often not what it seems, Nelson tries to say the desperate and unfortunate can rise above their circumstances. But this relative twist — that essentially says, even the downtrodden can be good — just comes off as banal, mildly offensive and kind of convenient.
We, also, as a filmmaking nation, need to put a moratorium on films that begin right before the final climax, and then flashback to the beginning and work their way forward. This convention is really tired and does “Anesthesia” no favors. Well intentioned and commendable, Tim Blake Nelson’s film does not put his dialogue or writing strengths into question. But movies have to convince us on myriad levels, and this can be tough enough as it is. Chronicling countless narratives with their own emotional honesty not only leaves more room for little individual miscalculations that add up negatively, but places a huge burden on connecting them all truthfully. [B]