January is notorious for film, earning a place among cinema’s dump months. The word “dump” refers to the increased output of disposable entertainment – a film with no huge commercial or critical expectation – making this a really depressing month for movie theatre attendees. This year, the honor of an early January release date goes to The Forest and Ride Along 2; however, I had the chance to watch something a little different, an indie drama called Anesthesia which is directed, written and starring Tim Blake Nelson. Please do not let the word “indie” fool you, Anesthesia is no less badly written, derivative or lazy as its previous dump month counterparts – the only difference here is that Anesthesia is a more unpredictable mess, observable like watching a waiter carry a freshly cooked meal to your table, only to drop it at the last second.
I’m a fan of Tim Blake Nelson as an actor. He has serious acting chops both in comedy and drama, but Anesthesia shows little of that talent, and more that as a filmmaker he is completely out of his depth. This film is an anthology, so think Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Todd Solondz’s Happiness without the biting social commentary or narrative prowess of either. It follows people whose lives are depicted through various social layouts, intertwined through vague philosophical foundations and brief encounters.
It’s hard deciding where to begin. There are moments where it seems clear that Nelson is attempting to emulate Magnolia with his use of follow shots, all of which lack the dense perspective of Anderson and his visual storytelling ability too. The film’s script has the habit of disproportionately balancing between subdued realism and deadpan witticisms, but the worst of the bunch come in subtler forms. This makes his dialogue the most baffling features of the film, ranging from the awkward, cringe-inducing scene of a Middle American housewife actually trying to sell “utterly heinous” as a natural phrase to a teen’s painfully stilted delivery of “Ray is a prick and a narc” as a way to express his angst against his inhibition.
Still, none of these match the pseudo-intellectual prattling of its central characters, a university professor (Sam Waterston) and even worse by his student (Kristen Stewart) whose segments seem less like two individuals conversing than Nelson espousing a singular bleak narrative upon the “Information Age.” Kristen Stewart, who was great in Clouds of Sils Maria, seems completely out of her element in this film. From the opening scene where the film milks her character’s self-pity by enforcing banal conflicts as a way to straw-man the world’s hostility or to feed her self-importance with rants on people with jobs and, for whatever reason, cellphones:
“Everyone is plugged in, blindingly inarticulate, obsessed with money, their careers. Stupidly, arrogantly content. I can’t talk to them, I fight them, I want to destroy them even. I crave interaction, I crave it. But you just can’t anymore. They pull their devices out for every little thing. To reinforce their petty, convenient notions, to decide where they’re gonna shop, what they’re gonna eat, what movies they’re going to watch. Everything they ingest.”
The movie isn’t nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. If you can sit through it without tearing your hair out, the philosophical undertones are sometimes emphasized by the philosophy professor reading a lecture beneath cut-scenes of the film’s multiple point of views. This was probably done as a way to add validity to the film’s structural narrative. However, just by simply deducing the professor’s deceptively intricate words, there’s really nothing truly brilliant being said here, nothing that truly binds the intertwining narratives together. His rhetoric on God being replaced by superseding opiates like technology and how our reliance on said technology makes us lonelier may be relevant to the narrative of the disparate student, but not to the that of adulterous spouse, the mentally ill vagabond or the terminally ill housewife.
I’m not going to lie; there’s an important point to be made here, you’re just not going to find it in this film. The end result of Anesthesia: it’s a plainly incoherent anthology film. It’s stories are too loosely connected to hold any weight, its philosophies are abstract and interchangeable, its Computer Age criticisms are simplistic and self-important, and the style seems too minimalist for a concept so ambitious. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a poorly written thesis paper, not entirely disengaging or without effort, but pretentious and uninformed, reaching false conclusions on a thin premise.