'Anesthesia': Tribeca Review

An involving drama with many storylines and one universal theme

Sam Waterston leads a strong ensemble in Tim Blake Nelson's latest.

A dozen or so characters dramatize the various ways we distract ourselves from the hard work of living in Tim Blake Nelson's Anesthesia, a New York-set drama that marks the actor's fifth feature behind the camera. Various storylines orbit around Walter Zarrow, a philosophy professor played by Sam Waterston, in ways we mostly understand from the start, thus avoiding the synchronicity cliches marring many other we're-all-connected dramas. That isn't to say the overlaps hold no surprises, but what's more important here is the power of each thread to engage viewers in thoughtful discussion. A cast packed with names ranging from Waterston to Kristen Stewart to Michael K. Williams should attract enough attention at the box office to end Nelson's slump there after Leaves of Grass and The Grey Zone.

In opening scenes, we witness the aftermath of a "perfectly senseless" attack that leaves Zarrow near death in the entryway of an Upper West Side apartment building. Jumping back to a week earlier, we see him in the classroom, where students are engaged and entertained, and learn that he is ready to retire with the wife (Glenn Close) he adores.

Meanwhile, Zarrow lends a sympathetic ear to both a student (Stewart) and a son (Nelson) in crisis; if scenes of him in the lecture hall didn't peg him as the moral voice of the film, marveling at our species’ compulsion to propagate itself and asking if modern life has left any room for philosophy, these scenes do — well before we witness acts of charity that may draw the character into trouble. Any viewer entering the film without wanting to hug Waterston will have a crush by the picture's end, with the actor perfectly embodying a flavor of learned humanism that carries us through a couple of more abstractly angst discussions of society's decay.

Across town, Williams is sneaking away from his corporate-law duties to force an old friend (K. Todd Freeman) into rehab; a privileged suburban mother (Gretchen Mol) is swilling wine while calling out others on their sense of entitlement; her husband (Corey Stoll) is trysting in the city while claiming to be in China for work; and Nelson's family is experiencing a couple of very different rites of passage.

Most of these storylines involve characters using narcotics, pot or booze to paper over their difficulties or keep the world at bay; in a couple of instances, harmful behavior is its own drug. Though this sounds heavy-handed on paper, it rarely feels that way; the film is focused enough on relationships not to sound preachy. If, in the end, it elicits few epiphanies about the myriad kinds of "anesthesia" we use, that's no more damning than the accusation that Walter Zarrow has taught the same big questions for over three decades without ever giving his students the answers.

Production company: Hello Please

Cast: Glenn Close, K. Todd Freeman, Jessica Hecht, Gretchen Mol, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Mickey Sumner, Yul Vazquez, Sam Waterston, Michael .K Williams

Director-Screenwriter: Tim Blake Nelson

Producers: Julie Buck, Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Hetzler, Christopher Scott, John Molli

Executive Producers: Anthony Nicholson, Reid Nicholson, Jonathan Gray, Houston King, Dennis Mytykyn

Director of photography: Christina Voros

Production designer: Dina Goldman

Costume designer: Annie Simon

Editor: Mako Kamitsuna

Music: Jeff Danna

Casting directors: Avy Kaufman, Leeba Zakharov

Sales: Bec Smith, UTA

No rating, 89 minutes

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