Posted by Joel Copling on January 20, 2016

True to the lectures spoken by the character who is effectively our central one, "Anesthesia" is akin to one of those movies that likes to think it's waxing philosophic when it's really just rambling on about concepts it is far too dim to grasp. Of course, the point of those ideas and their philosophical stature is that they are, in some way, unattainable. Director/co-star Tim Blake Nelson's screenplay wants very much to break down those ideas to the tune of an ensemble melodrama. To say the least, Nelson is unprepared to do so. As misused as the word "pretentious" is in this climate, especially among my contemporaries in film criticism, this is a movie that justifies its existence by being a pretender.

The character who lectures does so because he is a philosophy professor played by Sam Waterston (an actor who, given the limitations to his character here, is as good as he can be). His name is Walter Zarrow, and while he used to be a pretty cynical atheist, he is now a preciously optimstic believer in all schools of thought. And boy, does he talk and talk about these lines of thought. He has a wife, Marcia (Glenn Close), who has no real, defining characteristic to call her own and seems to fill space for the purpose of reacting to tragedy late in the game, and a son, Adam (Nelson), whose wife (Jessica Hecht) has a health scare that exists solely to insert some false drama into the mix.

There are more characters here, too, all of them defined by just how much misery will define them by the time the credits arrive (unceremoniously and with little to no resolution): There's Walter's student Sophie (Kristen Stewart), a self-harming depressive type whose great mournfulness stems from an unintentionally comic source, a lawyer named Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams) who wants to protect one of his clients from drug-related ruin by way of intervention, a suburban housewife named Sarah (Gretchen Mol) whose shrewish, selfish behavior is constantly blamed on other people, and a married couple whose male counterpart, Sam (Corey Stoll), was married to Sarah previously and has a child with her.

The connections between these characters only establish themselves within the final 15 minutes, by which point any trace of good will is all but removed by a slapdash execution. It's difficult to determine where Nelson is headed thematically with this effort. The starry cast is impressive on the face of it, but each and every one of them is underused by a screenplay that skimps on complexity in lieu of filling up the quota that ensembles require. The best is, perhaps, Stewart, but the actress's scenes are strangely isolated from nearly everyone else in the cast (heavily implying some obvious reshoots). I wanted to go the whole review without making the obvious joke involving its title, but it's unavoidable: "Anesthesia" is a numbing experience.

Film Information

Sam Waterston (Prof. Walter Zarrow), Kristen Stewart (Sophie), Corey Stoll (Sam), Gretchen Mol (Sarah), Michael K. Williams (Jeffrey), Tim Blake Nelson (Adam Zarrow), Glenn Close (Marcia Zarrow), Jacqueline Baum (Allie), Ekaterina Samsonov (Angie), Lisa Benavides-Nelson (Dr. Pratt).

Directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson.

Rated R (language, sexual content, drug use, brief violence).

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on January 8, 2016.