Written and Directed by Tim Blake Nelson.
Starring Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Jessica Hecht, K. Todd Freeman, Michael K. Williams, Gretchen Mol, Mickey Sumner, Ben Konigsberg, Katie Chang, Hannah Marks, Yul Vazquez, and Glenn Close.
Multiple lives intersect in the aftermath of the violent mugging of a Columbia University philosophy professor.
Small-scale bigger picture movies featuring a plethora of average citizens dealing with their own personal baggage that has those characters intersect with other ongoing story arcs has always been something of a fascination of mine among plot devices. So naturally, I sought out watching the new directorial effort from Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone) entitled Anesthesia, which deals with the mugging of a highly respected college professor and the ripples it causes among his peers and family, both before and after the attack.
Granted, much of the film deals with the events leading up to that unfortunate incident. Played by Sam Waterston, our philosophy guru teacher Walter is shown delivering seminars that his students greatly appreciate, alongside counseling a deeply troubled and depressed student portrayed by Kristen Stewart. She physically harms herself in order to feel alive, and seemingly loathes our modern society that pretty much always needs to be plugged into some form of technology or social media. This teacher also has a wife that he brings flowers to every Friday night, played by veteran actress Glenn Close. He also has a family dealing with their own problems, most notably a daughter-in-law in need of surgery for a tumor on an ovary. And those parents have a pair of high school aged brainiacs that, while not slipping in their academics, are typically becoming more interested in trying out pot and sexual awakenings.
Anesthesia has a lot of ground to cover from the most basic perspective of simply explaining to the reader what it’s about, but the real shocker is I haven’t even come close to mentioning all of the various characters involved. There’s also a hotshot lawyer trying to get his childhood junkie friend into rehab, along with a suburban mom going through a midlife crisis consuming toxic levels of alcohol, and a couple debating about the appropriate time to have children.
You can probably already guess it, but much of Anesthesia is the very definition of clusterfuck, especially considering all of the above is crammed into an 85 minute movie. That is nowhere near enough time to make any of these individual narratives truly gripping, although there are some that stand out more than others. K. Todd Freeman delivers the film’s most captivating performance as a drug addict, who is both hurt by the fractured relationship between him and his best friend while possessed by his fixation on presumably heroin. There’s a scene where a nurse asks him where everything went wrong in his life, and to the credit of both director Tim Blake Nelson and K. Todd Freeman, a great degree of raw emotion can be felt.
If Anesthesia spent more time focusing on characters and story arcs that were far more interesting than a tamely alcoholic mother arguing with other parents, the final composition would undoubtedly be much more realized and effective. Putting it bluntly, a good three or four of these stories serve no hard-hitting purpose to the overall narrative besides the common theme of all these people dealing with pain despite living quite privileged lifestyles. Save for the drug addict anyway, but his journey actually crosses with the college professor in a perfectly acceptable and believable way that feels both tragic yet fitting.
Even characters that are interesting, such as the possibly suicidal Kristen Stewart, are brushed aside with very limited screen-time. Anesthesia has far too many moving parts, resulting in a movie that switches from character to character so routinely, that it feels like a collection of meaningless individual scenes before things finally converge, but most importantly, you’re frustrated at the absence of the more interesting personas. Kristen Stewart gets one monologue on what is ailing her with one or two other scenes spread out over the duration of the film, meaning that there is a decent character elevated by an alright performance grossly wasted in favor of showcasing not just more characters, but other less interesting characters.
Problems aside, the script (also done by Tim Blake Nelson) feels very real and naturalistic. Outside of longing for moments where stories come together to form a singular focus, there’s rarely a moment of boredom thanks to interesting dialogue and a fantastic ensemble cast doing everything they can to wring out some emotion from every moment. The only exception is an extended scene of Walter, giving a long-winded lecture that cheesily cuts to all of the various characters of the movie, as if it is brilliantly observed social commentary on their lives. There are also some annoying plot conveniences along the way, but they are easily forgiven as the strength is once again in the exchanges between individual characters.
Anesthesia is something of a mass, but it’s the kind of sloppily slapped together film that keeps you looking on and paying attention in admiration of the fact that what works, works well. It’s not a terrible trainwreck, just a severely flawed movie with nuggets of engaging drama here and there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★