A reliable formula for getting your indie drama made is to write a lot of small, chewy parts that several good actors will want to sink their teeth into.
Another part of the formula involves having access to those good actors. Which is why more than a few such films are made by actors themselves — the peer-to-peer approach.
So actor/director Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother Where Art Thou,” “O”) had a couple of legs up getting his “Anesthesia” filmed and released to theaters. And good for him.
The movie, a multi-character melodramatic puzzle that resolves itself in convenient, soap opera fashion, is very much a mixed bag, as is the cast. But there’s just enough there — or almost just enough, anyway.
Sam Waterston plays a college philosophy professor on the verge of retirement. His every action is a bit of calculated “good.” His every sentence seems to quote Nietzche, St. Augustin, Shakespeare or Montaigne. So it’s troubling that we meet him and he is promptly stabbed.
New York, you see.
Corey Stoll and Mickey Summer are the couple who find him, bleeding, in the foyer of their apartment building. Kristen Stewart is the professor’s “brilliant, but troubled…inscrutable” student. Tim Blake Nelson is the professor’s son, whose wife (Jessica Hecht) has just discovered she has cancer. Their kids (Hannah Marks and Ben Konigsberg) are bright but oblivious, diving into pot.
There’s also a well-read junkie (K. Todd Freeman) whose childhood friend, now a rich lawyer (Michael Kenneth Williams) is willing to hire “muscle” to get the guy into rehab.
And Gretchen Mol is a rich, bored housewife who feuds with other rich, bored housewives, wonders if her husband is really traveling for “business” and drinks too much wine as she’s wondering.
They’re all people suffering in various ways, failing to connect in various others. There are good lines and great scenes — a just-dating couple disagreeing over having children, teens stumbling and giggling into their first lovemaking experience, the spoiled suburbanite (Mol, along with Waterston the stand-out performer here) fuming about “our entitlements,” and the legions of former New York career women reduced to sitting in pricey SUVs in the pickup line at their private school, bickering.
“What’s LEFT but polishing our children?”
Stewart seems to play the linchpin character, a coed struggling with loneliness and alienation. And although I’m a fan, she is weak, here. Her line readings play like rote recitations, rants about how she must “crave interaction” in an era where her peers cannot disconnect from their “devices,” which make all their decisions for them.
They must be under anesthesia, we can surmise. Too easily.
Shot in the overcast greys of late winter/early spring, Nelson’s actors pitch their performances that way, giving “Anesthesia” a narcotizing effect.
Which wasn’t exactly what he was going for. But the intellectual ambition, the showy “smart” dialogue and collectively quotable characters played by actors we respect make “Anesthesia” watchable, and its existence as an indie film that attracted this cast, won financing and made it into theaters easy to explain.
MPAA Rating:R for language, sexual content, drug use and brief violence
Cast: Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Glenn Close, K. Todd Freeman, Gretchen Moll, Michael Kenneth Williams, Tim Blake Nelson
Credits: Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:29