Various forms of physical and psychic pain are endured by the talky New Yorkers peopling “Anesthesia,” the fifth feature by actor-director Tim Blake Nelson; as unwittingly promised by the title, however, viewers may not feel them very deeply. Opening with a violent jolt, as a benevolent philosophy professor (Sam Waterston) is brutally assaulted near his Upper West Side apartment, the film gets progressively more anodyne as it files through the problems of those closely and tangentially related to him. That the everyone-is-connected ensemble piece has become such a staple of American independent cinema limits the impact of Nelson’s structural revelations; a poetic throughline isn’t immediately obvious, though the profuse dialogue often is. Despite the presence of names like Kristen Stewart and Glenn Close in the cast, “Anesthesia” is unlikely to rouse much commercial attention.
“Why is the world so base? Why is the world so insensitive?” moans Sophie (Stewart), a smart but self-destructive college student, halfway through a rambling cri de coeur in which she also admits to “craving” human interaction. While not everyone in “Anesthesia” voices their particular brand of unhappiness quite so bluntly, this soliloquy is typical of Nelson’s heartfelt but heavy-handed approach to measuring the state of the population. Like a tonier East Coast response to Paul Haggis’s “Crash,” the film effortfully pushes its characters together only to observe the ways in which they largely resist contact. Waterston’s character Walter is alone in attempting to forge social bridges, and is most grievously punished for his efforts; for all its upstanding sensitivity, Nelson’s vision isn’t necessarily a hopeful one.
Filmed in reticent, observational long shot, a pre-credits sequence follows Walter on his route home from what is later revealed to have been his final day of teaching. After stopping to buy flowers for his beloved wife Marcia (an under-exploited Close), he is randomly stabbed in the street by an unidentified tramp; alerted by Walter’s cries for help, neighboring couple Sam (Corey Stoll) and Nicole (Mickey Sumner) come to his rescue. At this point, the film resets the narrative one week earlier, looking in on Walter as he counsels his son Adam (Nelson) through a family crisis. Adam’s wife Jill (Jessica Hecht) is facing a cancer scare, while their teenage children (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks, both excellent) are experimenting with mild sexual and narcotic diversions. They have less to worry about than the aforementioned Sophie, also subject to Walter’s kindly moral guidance as she tries to kick a severe self-harming habit.
Other narrative strands correspond less directly with Walter’s story — at least upfront — but also touch on faintly unifying themes of addiction and self-isolation. Seemingly abandoned by her husband in a moneyed New Jersey suburb, cashmere-clad mother-of-two Sarah (Gretchen Mol) mourns her former city life and turns to the bottle for comfort. Back in the city, educated but impoverished junkie Joe (K. Todd Freeman) is dragged into rehab by his childhood best friend, sharp-suited lawyer Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), while Sam and Nicole muddle through more bourgeois relationship problems. Nelson and editor Mako Kamitsuna don’t so much weave these stories together as systematically alternate them, simply dropping the connections as they chronologically occur. There’s much to be said for the film’s lack of coy trickery in this regard, though it’s also not conducive to tension: At just 89 minutes, the proceedings feel a little slacker than they should.
The ensemble labors sincerely to bring Nelson’s dense, frequently didactic writing to life, though it can be a hard task — never more so than in Waterston’s climactic final lecture, the kind of literately saccharine, applause-seeking disquisition on life in general that screenwriters seem to imagine occur on a daily basis in university halls. As it culminates, almost inevitably, with a modified Nietzsche quote on man finally being “beautifully, achingly alone,” the more playful philosophizing of Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” is sorely missed. Even more blatant a mouthpiece for the film’s ideas, and arguably typecast as a figure of sullen intensity, Stewart’s glumly sermonizing character doesn’t reward the actress’s customary commitment and intelligence.
Craft elements across the board are more proficient than they are elegant. While Christina Voros’s grainy digital lensing affords the actors plenty of breathing space, the same can’t always be said for Jeff Danna’s instructive orchestral score.