Film Review: Anesthesia

Upscale 'Crash' that pulls together multiple narratives dramatizing the interconnectedness of divergent lives, culminating in a violent act. The material is familiar and not fully convincing, but Sam Waterston is fun to watch.
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Sam Waterston’s haircut is so wonderful in Anesthesia: tufts of unkempt hair going this way and that in haphazard, joyous disarray and every bit the perfect topping for his Columbia University philosophy professor—sporting, not surprisingly, rumpled, ill-fitting garments—as he grapples with the Larger Issues (meaning of life, purpose, destiny, etc., etc.) on the cusp of retirement after 34 years at the lectern. It’s Central Casting and then some.

Waterston has undoubtedly stepped into a new role as Professor Walter Zarrow, a far cry from the hard-nosed, buttoned-down and sleekly coiffed district attorney Jack McCoy with whom he is most identified thanks to his 16-year tenure on “Law & Order.”

Equally—well, almost, equally—enjoyable are the Morningside Heights, Upper West Side and West Village street scenes and buildings (especially to those viewers who are familiar with them) and the well-appointed apartments and homes right out of Architectural Digest featured in this film.

But that’s where the fun ends. Despite moments of interest, Anesthesia is relentlessly “been there, done that” and its hamstrung, lofty thoughts, spelled out in the title, don’t help. Most of the characters in varying degrees are drug/booze abusers and/or emotionally deadened to begin with. They are anesthetized. Get it? Get it?

Anesthesia is an upscale Crash centering on the allegedly profound interconnectedness among a group of seemingly disparate individuals and random events. The movie opens with Professor Zarrow violently mugged and lying on a lobby floor, unconscious and bleeding. Flashback to two weeks earlier and the strands of the story emerge.

Besides the professor and his loving, longtime wife (Glenn Close), there’s his beleaguered, wimpy son Adam (played by the film’s writer-director, Tim Blake Nelson), whose wife (Jessica Hecht) has been diagnosed with an ovarian tumor that may well be cancer. Adam’s precocious teenage kids (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks) are stressed by everything, most notably their raging hormones, and spend lots of time on their building’s rooftop getting stoned and irritating the neighbors.

Then there’s the professor’s brilliant, self-mutilating philosophy student (Kristen Stewart), who can find no meaning in anything; a heroin addict (K. Todd Freeman) and his high-powered attorney pal (Michael K. Williams) desperately trying to get him to clean up his act; and an alcoholic suburban wife (Gretchen Mol) and her sex-addicted husband (Corey Stoll), whose philandering coincidentally places him in the building where Zarrow is mugged. But in this universe, coincidence is more closely allied with notions of “convergence.”

That aside, there are far too many characters whose connection to the central narrative is tangential, oblique at best. And the stories are not consistently interesting or easy to remember, assuming you follow them to begin with. Indeed, with the exception of Professor Zarrow, whose learned musings are thought-provoking (Nelson’s Leaves of Grass also featured a complex professorial type), the others comprise a pedestrian lot. It all feels vaguely trite and banal despite good acting (especially from Waterston, who brings an added layer of depth to his performance).

This film is seriously seamed on many fronts, not least in its carefully packaged treatment of African-Americans. This is a sensitive topic, yet Nelson’s determined effort to be “balanced” is self-consciously, awkwardly obvious. Along with one thug, there are two “good” black characters, one of whom is downright noble.

Similarly, his presentation of upper-crust family life is contrived. Though much has been written about childlike parents who are not parents at all, but foul-mouthed, lousy examples of how to live and interact, in this movie it’s overstated, not fully credible and unpleasant to watch.

Still, whatever the film’s shortcomings, there is one resounding saving grace: Waterston’s hairdo. Enjoy.

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