“Anesthesia,” Tim Blake Nelson’s exquisitely compressed cri de coeur about the meaning of life in a hyper-connected world, begins as a knife-wielding stranger viciously attacks Walter (Sam Waterston), a wise, kindhearted Columbia University philosophy professor at the door of his apartment building. The circular story immediately backtracks to observe Walter, who is on the verge of retirement after 34 years, addressing a class and posing the same unanswerable questions he has been pondering out loud for more than three decades.
Wouldn’t it be better not to be born than to live and suffer? he wonders. “But Eros seduces us into striving for the falsely ethereal, and worse, propagating, and thereby subjecting another generation to the same suffering we endure,” he goes on.
It’s heavy stuff delivered in a warm, avuncular tone with a twinkle in his eye. We discover that Walter has a blissful, long marriage to Marcia (Glenn Close), whom he regularly brings hydrangeas from a corner flower shop.
“Anesthesia” opens up to reveal a world of interconnection in the manner of films like “Crash” and “Babel” that in many critics’ minds has become an irritating pseudo-profound movie cliché. But has it? It is a terrific organizing tool if used with subtlety and to evoke an inescapable reality of our time, and Mr. Nelson (“Leaves of Grass,” “Eye of God”) wields it deftly to evoke the simultaneity of events in its characters’ lives. Lacking epic pretensions and modest in scale, running under 90 minutes, “Anesthesia” is really closer in spirit to Rodrigo García’s delicate 2005 gem, “Nine Lives.” And it doesn’t waste a word or an image. In places, it is a little too spare.
The thematic variation on which “Anesthesia” focuses is the cruel paradox of living in a world of life-enhancing technological miracles that don’t begin to fulfill our yearning for a more purposeful, satisfying existence.
The characters are smart, articulate upper-middle-class New Yorkers seeking relief from pain and frustration and finding it in the usual palliatives. Walter, who has found fulfillment in teaching and in his marriage, is the only major character who might be described as happy. Although not religious, he is a spiritual descendant of Ben, the soon-to-be-blind rabbi Mr. Waterston played so movingly in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Despite all the chaos surrounding him, Ben, groping in the dark, operates on faith.
The outstanding cast in “Anesthesia” includes Kristen Stewart as a bitter, soul-sick student who injures herself with a curling iron; Gretchen Mol as a neglected wife with a drinking problem and two daughters; and Corey Stoll as her unfaithful husband. In a shattering performance, K. Todd Freeman plays a highly educated heroin addict with no intention of cleaning up whose wealthy best friend arranges for him to be forcibly hospitalized. His performance is a tour de force of concentrated fury and desperation.
Mr. Nelson plays Walter’s dour son, Adam, whose scolding high-strung wife, Jill (Jessica Hecht), is being tested for ovarian cancer; they have two rebellious teenagers whose flagrant pot-smoking on the roof of their building has incensed the other tenants.
If Walter is the film’s official mouthpiece, Ms. Stewart’s sullen character, Sophie, one of his students, is its despairing op-ed voice.
“The world has just become so inhuman,” she complains. “Everyone’s plugged in, blindingly inarticulate, obsessed with money, their careers, stupidly arrogantly content. I crave interaction, but you just can’t anymore.” She goes on to blame herself and declare that, if anything, she’s worse than those she despises.
One scene, in which impatient mothers picking up their children after school in fancy cars angrily honk their horns and raise their middle fingers at one another, captures the generalized meanness and incivility that has seeped into modern life. Like few contemporary films, “Anesthesia” distills the anxious intellectual tenor of the times.
“How do we still seek purpose?” Walter asks his students in his final class. “And where do we hope to find it, if we’re so busy convincing ourselves there needn’t be any?”
“Anesthesia” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Strong language, sexual content, drug taking and violence. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes.