When a Columbia University professor (Sam Waterston: Le Divorce) is violently mugged on his walk home one dark, cold night, the disparate group of friends, family, lovers, and strangers who are affected by this event have to come to terms with their own pain, their own failings, and the inadequate ways in which they have been trying to cope. That’s the idea, anyway, but it doesn’t work as a cohesive, satisfying whole in the way that, I’m sure, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone) intends.
There is a wonderfully astute sensitivity to how Nelson and his marvelous cast play out the difficulty of baring tough emotions that can be difficult to discuss or, sometimes, to even put words to, and there is a raw openness here that is often startling: a couple cuddling on a sofa, fully clothed, just talking, is far more intimate than almost any scene of naked fucking you’ll see onscreen. The individual stories work well when they stand alone: Kristin Stewart (American Ultra), as one of the prof’s grad students who is struggling mightily in a world that feels cold and unwelcoming to her, is superb; the triangle of the man (Corey Stoll: Ant-Man) who comes to the prof’s aid after the mugging, the man’s wife (Gretchen Mol: Laggies), and the woman he is cheating on her with (Mickey Sumner: Girl Most Likely) is powerfully honest about how unhappiness fuels itself. Other vignettes include the professor’s son (Nelson) and his troubles with his wife (Jessica Hecht: The Sisterhood of Night) and teenaged kids (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks: The Amazing Spider-Man); and a drug addict (K. Todd Freeman: The Dark Knight) and the lawyer trying to help him (Michael K. Williams: Captive); Glenn Close (Guardians of the Galaxy) also appears as the professor’s wife.
But while the professor’s expertise and passion for philosophy and the questions his work ponders about the meaning of life are, perhaps, meant to serve as the connective tissue between all these characters, the film is too meandering to ever get to whatever collective point it is trying to make about them. Anesthesia is definitely worth a look for the beautiful performances, but the feeling it left me with was ultimately one of frustration and disappointment at its wispy good intentions that dissipate into thin air.