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'Anesthesia' a rumination on existential alienation in 21st century New York

'Anesthesia' a rumination on existential alienation in 21st century New York
Sam Waterston plays Walter Zarrow in Tim Blake Nelson's "Anestheaia." (Anna Kooris / IFC Films)

There's a certain satisfaction that can be found in a looping, tangled cinematic narrative of interwoven lives in an anonymous urban environment — the coincidences and conflicts that elucidate the proximity of city life. This is the idea behind Tim Blake Nelson's "Anesthesia," which starts with an act of violence on the streets of New York and then doubles back to show us who these people are.

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The anchor of the film is Walter (Sam Waterston), a Columbia literature professor and the victim of a mugging who seeks help from his neighbors. Flashing back after the attack, Nelson shows us the outreaching tentacles of each life involved in the incident — Walter's son (Nelson), daughter-in-law and brainy twin grandchildren; his neighbor (Corey Stoll) and his troubled double life, and Walter's would-be defender.

Walter's a bit of a messiah figure, a beloved professor whose students cry at his lectures, a benevolent community member, a loving husband, a patient counselor. However, winding through these lives, the culminating incident reveals that for all the interconnectedness, it's just chance that brings these people together.

The real problem with "Anesthesia" is its script, which completely tosses aside the notion of "show, don't tell." It's a rumination on existential alienation in a 21st century city bedeviled by "devices" and "pseudo-communication," with each character spelling out his or her collision course with sex, death or drugs. The all-star cast is uniformly good, but the script lacks any sort of nuance to temper the pandering lecture.

"Anesthesia."

MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content, drug use and brief violence.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood.

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