‘Anesthesia’: A numbing collection of intertwined stories

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We begin with a man writhing in pain, on the ground in the vestibule of a New York City apartment building.

We circle back to the events of the last week leading to that moment.

Then we’re back at that apartment building entrance, with a full understanding of what has happened.

Unfortunately, we’re all too relieved to return to the scene of the crime, because it means this meandering and moribund multi-character journey is nearing its end.

Writer-director-actor Tim Blake Nelson is a smart, savvy, veteran filmmaking presence, and he’s to be commended for shooting for the intellectual and philosophical stars in “Anesthesia,” but this ensemble piece plays like “Crash” in a minor note, with one heavy-handed scene after another, all leading up to an ambivalent, unsatisfying ending.

Sam Waterston does his reliable gruff-but-cuddly thing as Walter, a beloved philosophy professor retiring after some 36 years in the classroom.  Glenn Close, nearly unrecognizable beneath oversized glasses and a colorful wool cap, has little more than an extended cameo as Walter’s devoted wife.

Walter’s son Adam (Nelson) is an uptight, humorless sort prone to bellowing “Unbelievable!” at the pot-smoking, curfew-bending behavior of his teenage children. Adam’s wife Jill (Jessica Hecht), who’s much more tolerant of their children’s behavior, has just learned she might have cancer.

Meanwhile, Gretchen Mol’s Sarah is an alcoholic who nags her two young daughters and gets into screaming matches with other mothers. Sarah’s husband Sam (Corey Stoll) is always traveling and, oh yeah, he’s having an affair.

But wait, the fun doesn’t stop there. One of Walter’s favorite students, Sophie (Kristen Stewart), clinically depressed and prone to rage, has taken to cutting herself just to feel something. And then there’s Joe (K. Todd Freeman), a once-promising writer who’s now addicted to heroin.

To quote an observation the professor makes at one point: “Any way you look at it, grim stuff.”

Nearly all the characters are connected through blood, marriage, work or happenstance. As the title indicates, “Anesthesia” explores the various methods employed by emotionally broken and spiritually bruised humans to get through the next day, whether it’s drinking or drugs or self-mutilation or withdrawing from responsibility or lunging into an illicit affair.

Professor Brown is such a popular figure among his students that even some former protégés of his show up for his final lecture. He delivers a beautiful, impassioned speech about … well, about the meaning of life, pretty much, and while it sounds lovely and it overflows with verbal flourishes, like “Anesthesia” itself, it is a grand gesture going nowhere.

[s3r star=1.5/4]

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual content, drug use and brief violence). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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