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Hooked on Film rating:
Here is an ambitious movie that wishes to present unto you, the viewer, an overreaching, multi-leveled series of story-lines designed to present a cohesive, thematic whole not too dissimilar to the likes of greater ensembles of the likes Robert Altman and Woody Allen directed (i. e. Nashville, Gosford Park, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and almost succeeds. I say almost because when we’ve seen these pictures one too many times, the freshness of the material becomes a bit stale and staged. If anyone recalls a little movie called Crash that inexplicably won the Oscars in 2006, then that is the one that this movie seems to pay homage to. It didn’t work well (for the most part, except in some isolated circumstances), and it doesn’t quite deliver this time.
Anesthesia opens rather dramatically: on an Upper West Side corner, Walter (Sam Waterston) crosses the street to buy some flowers at a deli. Moments later a couple, Sam and Nicole (Corey Stoll and Mickey Sumner) get jolted out of their sleep and rush downstairs to find out that the man we just met has been brutally stabbed in what seems a random attack. Suddenly, Anesthesia goes back in time to about a week prior to its opening scene, and we’re introduced to Walter as a philosophy professor at Columbia, delivering his final classes before starting a life of retirement alongside his wife Marcia (Glenn Close). Everyone that he has met or will encounter within this space and time has some form of isolation in the form of escapism.
For instance, there is Sophie (Kristen Stewart, essaying another complex role). When we first meet her she’s sitting in the college cafeteria when she has a rather unpleasant encounter with a guy who wants her chair, to which she refuses. It turns ugly, and then we see that Sophie seems to be at odds with the world around her, a thing she copes with by injuring herself. Sam and Nicole, who encounter Walter at the opening of Anesthesia, are in the middle of an affair. Sam, allegedly, is in China, his wife (Gretchen Mol) in Northern New Jersey, drinking her pain away, suspicious that he is lying to her. Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Jessica Hecht) are coping with a lump on her breast while their kids get high to cope with their parents’ tension. And adding to this mix are two unrelated characters: Jeffrey (Michael Williams), a high-powered African-American lawyer who is trying to force his childhood friend Joe (K. Todd Freeman) out of his drug-addiction and back to sobriety.
So, as this stands, there are a lot of characters to cover in the barely 90 minutes of running time. For the most part, Tim Blake Nelson succeeds without making the entire premise look too affected. What bothered me a little was the fact that Anesthesia seemed to, yet again, be mostly a front to present White People’s Problems under the guise of racial tensions that happen rather unexpectedly late in the film. Everyone has a certain degree of self-absorption, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the characters that surround Walter, although the one character that does come through is the one who couldn’t be further from this circle of over-privileged White people living in the clouds of Upper West Side domesticity: Joe.
Beyond Joe’s addiction there are gears and cogs turning. There is a character — a real person — trying to come out. Sadly, Anesthesia relegates Joe to a hospital bed, yelling into thin air, completely dependent on the phone call from Jeffrey that fails to arrive (Jeffrey’s met a female lawyer of probably White, but ill-defined ethnicity, for a tryst). Joe’s biggest scene comes late, and is as mysterious as it is pregnant with possibilities. It’s again, inexplicable to me why it’s also left unexplored and instead goes for something that seems to be a necessary cop out that brings the story back to its opening scene.
Anesthesia is a story enamored of its own concept that has moments of humor, moments of pathos, but ultimately doesn’t know where to go once the moment that it — and we — go “Aha!” arrives. That n itself is a crying shame.