Though he’s still best known for playing the delightfully dimwitted Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Tim Blake Nelson has spent the past two decades quietly building a notable career as a writer-director. His range has been impressive, too—everything from Shakespeare (O, a teen riff on Othello starring Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett) to a goofy stoner comedy (the dual Edward Norton vehicle Leaves Of Grass) to an almost unbearably grim Holocaust drama (The Grey Zone). Perhaps it was inevitable that Nelson would eventually try his hand at one of those sprawling, everyone-is-connected ensemble pieces that contemporary dramatists seem to find so irresistible. Still, it’s dispiriting to see him produce something as turgid and heavy-handed as Anesthesia, which employs a dozen or so cardboard characters as mouthpieces for singularly unilluminating thoughts about the ways in which people struggle to bury their unhappiness.
Like so many of these films, Anesthesia opens with an act of violence—in this case, the mugging of a college professor (Sam Waterston) and the murder of another, as-yet-unknown figure—and then flashes back to depict the interrelated events leading up to that tragedy. Among the folks making themselves uncomfortably numb are Sarah (Gretchen Mol), who’s started drinking heavily in response to clear signs that her husband is having an affair; Sam (Corey Stoll), the husband in question, who’s avoiding his problems by sleeping with Nicole (Mickey Sumner); Joe (K. Todd Freeman), a crack addict whose best friend, a rich lawyer (Michael K. Williams), has just had him involuntarily committed to a rehab center; Sophie (Kristen Stewart), one of the college professor’s students, prone to self-harm involving a curling iron; and a couple of kids (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks) who are heavily into pot.
Some of the connections between these characters are made clear immediately, while others are withheld until near the end of the film. It doesn’t much matter, though, as everybody onscreen exists solely to contribute to the central idea that we all find some self-destructive means of ignoring our problems. Nelson’s screenplay stumbles inelegantly from one episode to another, providing virtually every character with an overly self-aware speech—the most egregious example being a lengthy class lecture, delivered by Waterston’s prof, that spells out Anesthesia‘s theme in excruciating detail, as if the movie’s title weren’t blatant enough. The uniformly strong cast (which also, for some reason, includes Glenn Close in a nothing role as the professor’s wife) does its best to put some flesh on the thematic skeleton, and they collectively manage to avoid the laughable histrionics that plague Paul Haggis’ Crash (still the nadir of this quasi-genre). In the end, though, it’s the audience that’s most likely to be severely narcotized.