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NPR Arts & Life

In 'Anesthesia,' Separate Threads That Take Too Long To Be Joined

Kristen Stewart in a scene from <em>Anesthesia</em>.
Kristen Stewart in a scene from <em>Anesthesia</em>.

Over 16 seasons and 368 episodes as prosecutor Jack McCoy on Law & Order, the workaday artistry of Sam Waterston was easy to take for granted, like the foundation to an especially durable piece of architecture. Such are the consequences of being part of "What's on?" for such a long stretch of his career. Yet in a different context, the same qualities Waterston brought to the role — that gentle (if occasionally righteous) vocal tone, a moral seriousness, a somewhat patrician East Coast air — can be better appreciated. The retiring professor he plays in Anesthesia isn't exactly a stretch, but what depth this tidy everything-is-connected drama does possess comes mostly from his Gregory Peck-like authority in the lead role.

Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson's ensemble piece operates roughly like the solar system, with Waterston as the sun and the rest of the cast as planets orbiting at various distances around his gravitational center. The few closest to him get some heat, but the majority are left to drift in the cold and darkness, waiting for the Creator to acknowledge their presence. (Glenn Close, a big star with desolate screen time, would be the Jupiter of this metaphor.) Some of the actors are so marginalized that they risk becoming Pluto, such minuscule footnotes in the narrative that their very planethood comes under question.

There's order to Nelson's universe, of course, as there is with all everything-is-connected movies, and it's to his credit that Anesthesia is bound by less obvious themes than something like Crash. The Big Bang event finds Waterston's Walter getting mugged after buying flowers for his wife (Close) at a neighborhood bodega. The matter of who's doing the mugging is granted a continuance until the closing act, when Nelson finally makes all the relationships in the film clear. In the meantime, he flashes back to other key characters from a week earlier — some family members, many players to be named later.

Chief among them is Walter's beleaguered son (Nelson), whose wife (Jessica Hecht) is facing an ovarian cancer scare while their teenage children (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks) are testing their boundaries. There are also seemingly unrelated threads like a suburban mom (Gretchen Mol) who suspects her husband of having an affair and a slick attorney (Michael K. Williams) who tries to save his childhood best friend (K. Todd Freeman) from drug addiction. As for Walter, he faces retirement with Waterston-ian grace while seizing the opportunity to package the film's philosophy in a closing lecture.

Kristen Stewart turns up as a lonely college student given to self-harm, but she too exists apart from the rest of the characters, leaving the audience to guess what relationship she has to them. This is a deliberate strategy on Nelson's part, since Anesthesia is about the numbing disconnection of modern life, even among immediate family members and close friends who should know each other intimately but exist on a separate plane. Though film is a natural medium for dealing with alienation — speaking as it does with people sitting alone in the dark — a concept that abstract isn't easy to communicate.

Nelson handles his actors beautifully — to the point where we lament not seeing more of them — and the incident at the bodega is staged as an elegant mystery the film is patient to resolve. But the effect of keeping the various subplots apart for so long is enormously frustrating, because we don't know what Mol's frustrated suburbanite or Stewart's morose student or Williams and Freeman's strained friendship have to do with one another. They're each like underwritten ballads in search of a common rhyme, compelling only once Nelson decides it's time to harmonize them. By then, it's too late.

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