‘Anesthesia’
Director:
Tim Blake Nelson
Stars: Sam Waterston, Glenn Close
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

A noble semi-failure in an ignoble sub-genre, Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia” is one of those dreaded everyone-is-connected daisy chains a la “Crash.” Or is it really a loose ensemble film comprised of little character moments, expertly played by a deeply committed ensemble cast? Actually, it’s both. It’s a profoundly frustrating movie: astutely observed one minute, cliched the next, it jostles the viewer between loose, lived-in scenes and the dreary machinations of its interlocking plot, in which we gradually learn what all these characters have in common.

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The lynchpin is an event that opens the film: walking home one night, a Columbia professor, Sam Waterston’s Walter, is attacked by an unseen assailant, who leaves him bleeding outside of a random apartment building. We then flashback to people who have some connection, in most cases tenuous, to the event. There’s Walter’s depressed student (Kristen Stewart), who’s taken to burning herself with a curling iron. There’s a husband (Nelson himself) dealing with his sick wife (Jessica Hecht). There’s a lawyer (Michael K. Williams) too busy to help an old friend (K. Todd Freeman) who’s suffering from a debilitating drug addiction. There’s a suburban wife (Gretchen Mol), whose philandering husband has driven her to too many nightcaps.

It takes till the climax to sort who knows who or is related to who, but more importantly: what on earth do these stories have in common? Usually there’s a theme — racism in “Crash,” gun control in “It’s All the Rage” — that looms overhead. In “Anesthesia,” one can suss out vague ideas of disconnection, loneliness and pain. As per the title, some characters self-medicate, with booze or drugs. But more often than not it simply plays like a collection of individual scenes Nelson wrote then pasted together. 

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That’s not a criticism; it’s almost it’s saving grace. In these films the main theme can be overbearing. Once we realize Nelson isn’t loading them with some shticky shared ailment, we can relax and enjoy the scenes and the actors. And there’s a lot to enjoy. Each performer gets a scene or two to really attack, from a confessional monologue Stewart delivers that grows from fragile to angry to despairing, to parts where Freeman doesn’t sugarcoat his character being chained to a hospital bed, suffering through withdrawal. Mol gets some amusingly grouchy bits about dealing with fellow suburban moms, who clog the pickup line at their fancy-schmancy private school, reduced to pettiness that’s as juvenile as anything in any elementary schoolyard.

Still, just as one is grooving to some performance or observation, in kicks the plotting, and even some howling indie cliches. Nelson should know better than having the ever-smiling Walter deliver on-the-nose speeches to his class that underline, bold and italicize some of the film’s themes, played out over cutaways to the other threads. Once everything ties together it can’t help but feel accidentally yuppie, taking a condescending look at the impoverished. Nelson is an always welcome screen presence, elsewhere and definitely here, and he can be a strong writer and director, too; in 2001 he made a particularly upsetting Holocaust film, “The Grey Zone,” which is actually better than this year’s acclaimed “Son of Saul,” about the same specific subject. His writing can be sharp here too, but the gimmicky device that holds it all together is fathoms beneath him and his actors.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge