Sam Waterston as Walter Zarrow and Glenn Close as his wife Marcia on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in Tim Blake Nelson's “Anesthesia.” Photo: Anna Kooris.

Walter Zarrow and Glenn Close on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia.” Photo: Anna Kooris.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Anesthesia, the title of Tim Blake Nelson’s film showcased at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, as a loss of sensation with or without loss of consciousness. That sums up Nelson’s urban cast of characters — alternately brilliant, obsessed, conflicted, or suffering from some real or imagined malady. They’re a basically decent to downtrodden bunch, conscious of their own needs but largely numb to the rest of the universe. What will it take to wake them up?

Nelson’s solution is to create an incident. The film opens with the violent mugging of Walter Zarrow, a Columbia University philosophy professor, on another typical Friday evening after work. He buys a weekly bunch of flowers for his caring wife Marcia and atypically asks the name of the flower vendor, a question he admits he has not thought to ask for a number of years. This is a minor but telling moment; a professor’s sudden curiosity about someone whose life has intersected with his own becomes a precursor to the film’s overall theme. Minutes later, on his walk home, something terrible will happen.

The script takes us back just far enough — a familiar but effective cinematic device — so we can get a glimpse into the daily lives of the professor, his family, a favored grad student and the strangers who will unwittingly become an indelible part of his attack. Certainly, every member of Nelson’s repertory does their level best to fit into the niche of his storyline, some given more space than others, and it’s a tight squeeze. We’re provided with a blueprint of lives in mental and emotional distress, and can’t be blamed for wanting to see deeper into the human drama unfolding before us.

To give you a hint of this intertwined jumble of characters, there’s Walter himself at the hub of our story. As played by Sam Waterston (HBO’s The Newsroom), he emerges as the most benign and compassionate of the lot. We see him in the lecture hall, spouting Arthur Schopenhauer and the tragic destiny of the human race — and we believe his own frustration at finding answers to life’s biggest questions. This is one of the longer sequences in the film, and director Nelson (who is also a playwright) might have found a better place for such an extended treatise on the stage. It brings a halt to the overall pace, whereas a few judicious edits could have easily gotten his point across. When one writes as well as Nelson, it must be hard not to give equal weight to his visuals with words.

We are introduced soon enough to Walter’s son, Adam, a confused and somewhat overwhelmed husband and father, played by the filmmaker himself. As a character actor, Nelson has sharpened his chops on major films such as Lincoln and Minority Report, among others, but here his role is somewhat overshadowed by Jessica Hecht as his wife Jill. She has, obviously, taken control of the household and two unruly children, unprepared to process their mother’s fears of a possibly cancerous tumor. She’s a finely-tuned performer and doesn’t disappoint here.

Another subplot involves Sam (Carey Stoll) as a struggling writer resting on his past achievements. He’s restlessly tied to a homemaker wife (Gretchen Mol) — who drowns her sorrows over his absence in a wine-induced haze — and seeks solace in the arms of a mistress (Mickey Sumner) who knows too well what a compromised situation she finds herself in. This trio has distinguished themselves recently with leading roles in film, TV and Broadway to memorable effect. Corey Stoll received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Congressman Peter Russo in Netflix’s House of Cards, while Gretchen Mol was most recently on Broadway in Disgraced. Nevertheless, it was her five-season HBO stint in Martin Scorsese’s series Boardwalk Empire that showed the most promise for this actress. In Anesthesia, with no fault to her performance, her character’s wifely woes and inconvenient addiction are resolved a little too tidily. Mickey Sumner will be remembered for her stand-out role in Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed film, Frances Ha. Here she is largely a fill-in for a plotline that places her lover, Sam, in her apartment the night of the professor’s mugging.

Yet another storyline concerns K. Todd Freeman as Joe, a middle-aged, drugged-out black man who refuses all attempts to keep him in rehab. He’s shadowed by his more successful companion, Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), who is obviously exhausted by the whole enterprise of saving his friend. Freeman shines in this agonized role of a junkie but Williams — who has proven himself a stellar performer both in HBO’s The Wire series as well as Chalky in Boardwalk Empire — functions the best he can in a largely peripheral role. It’s not particularly a fault of the script but only a waste of a huge talent.

Another mystery is Glenn Close in a small role as Walter’s wife. She turns in an exemplary performance as always and is most effective in the final roundup scenes in the hospital following her husband’s mugging. But she too, if not misused, is rarely seen.

If Freeman takes center stage whenever he appears, another character not easily forgotten is Kristen Stewart’s Sophie. It has to be a difficult role, playing a brilliant grad student who can only deal with her existential anguish by cutting herself up on a regular schedule. It could easily have gone awry with a lesser talent but she hits the perfect balance between self-immolation and survival. One of the most sensitive young actresses in film today, she has never rested on her laurels as Bella Swan in the hit franchise of The Twilight Saga. She recently was awarded a César Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for Clouds of Sils Maria where she starred with Juliette Binoche.

There are other bit appearances in Nelson’s three-ring screenplay, and if he can be accused of overcrowding this multiple-storied plot, everyone involved turns in the best performance possible. He’s a fortunate director to inspire such fidelity in the acting community. One gets the impression — not unlike the adoration that Woody Allen has garnered from his casts — that everyone involved in Anesthesia was only too happy to show up and put in an appearance, however short-lived. Nelson does manage to bring his story full-circle by the wrap-up, so there is a long awaited pay-off for his audience.

Creating a circumstance which brings an unlikely cluster of characters together on film is a well-worn device that often works. Recent examples such as Valentine’s Day (2010) with Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Patrick Dempsey, Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway come to mind. In that case, a holiday which carries a messy brew of expectation and often disappointment becomes the catalyst. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), it’s the place itself which provides hilarious hi-jinx for all involved. Film buffs need only recall the likes of The Grand Hotel (1932) when John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and others made cinematic history in the ’30s, going their various ways through that infamous swinging door. Nelson has used a darker, senseless incident to good effect, in that nobody involved gets away without some profound change to their psyche.

In his director’s statement, Nelson calls himself a “resolute city dweller that never intended to be one.” He sees Anesthesia as an extremely personal film and asks, “Do we live as completely as those alive a century ago? Is there any room left for the sort of introspection that defines us as human?”

Not every writer-director plying his trade today is willing to tackle such a profound subject, and that in itself justifies our rooting for his future efforts in an overly-commercialized industry.

Rating: B+

“Anesthesia” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 22. For more information about the festival, you can click here.