Anesthesia: Finally, a Crash for the Upper West Side
By Jesse Hassenger
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson
Opens January 8
Tim Blake Nelson’s last film as a writer-director, Leaves of Grass, wasn’t entirely successful, but had a loopy ambition in its double-casting of Edward Norton as a professor and his pot-dealing lowlife twin. Nelson’s latest, Anesthesia, has a heavier, draggier approach to both academic and drugs: It begins with a violent crime perpetrated against Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterstron), a philosophy prof at Columbia, then jumps back to show how this happened, sort of, and show some tangential connections between a variety of characters—mostly New Yorkers, current and former. They include a drug addict (K. Todd Freeman) and his more upright best friend (Michael K. Williams); the man (Corey Stoll) who finds Zarrow after the attack; Zarrow’s son (Nelson) and his possibly cancer-stricken wife (Jessica Hecht), plus their precocious teenage kids (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks, looking genuinely related), and various others.
Not to get all New York resident on you, but the film’s best shot by far comes in its opening moments: a long static shot of Kim’s Fruits & Vegetables on Amsterdam Avenue, the camera lingering from across the street while Waterston’s character walks up, chats with the flower guy, goes in, makes a purchase, and comes out.
The scene has a calming simplicity that the movie sacrifices as it tries to get in closer to its characters. It has its little moments of observation, like the way Nelson and Hecht fold parental manipulation into Hecht’s health scare. When the movie ventures furthest from the Upper West Side, it turns cartoonier, with Gretchen Mol as a dissatisfied transplant to the surburbs, sniping at moms in the private school pick-up lane. Too often, it plays like a self-consciously high-minded riff on Crash (and, real talk: at least Crash was earnestly gripping in its bald-faced melodrama).
That high-mindedness becomes exhausting around the same time it starts pushing the boundaries of belief. Only Waterston’s character is an academic, but Nelson never really gets off campus; most of the characters speak with curiously overwritten college-prof phrasing. And that’s before he hands Waterstron a climactic final-lecture monologue that ends with his students giving him a standing ovation. One of Zarrow’s favorite students (Kristen Stewart) doesn’t attend, possibly because she needs no further tutelage in the art of long-winded grandstanding; she gets a monologue, too, earlier in the picture. As much as she’s capable of prompting a sarcastic version of this refrain with her clear fame discomfort, I must say: Poor Kristen Stewart! She had a terrific 2015 with her performances in Clouds of Sils Maria and American Ultra. Now her penchant for indies has gotten her into a mess where she’s still playing a self-harming undergrad (or an unstable grad student; I was unclear on this point) who actually says stuff like “I am not for this world.” If she’s talking about the world Anesthesia creates: yeah, I’m right there with you.