Comedian-actor Russell Brand has, in the past few years, been focusing his energies more on political activism, even going so far as to launch a web series and publish a book to further his campaign of economic revolution. The Emperor’s New Clothes, his documentary collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom, suggests that he’s picked up a few tactics from Michael Moore, grandstanding stunts and all. But say what you will about Moore spending the entirety of Roger & Me trying to score an interview with the CEO of General Motors, or actually landing one with Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine, one could argue that he evinces at least a hint of interest in hearing these people try to defend themselves. When Brand pulls a similar stunt in The Emperor’s New Clothes, driving around in a van with “Shop A Banker” printed on it, and trying to burst into the offices of major banks like HSBC and RBS in order to speak to the CEOs who run them, he gives no indication that he’s interested in open discourse. Instead of any sense of intellectual curiosity to add depth to his agreeably impassioned anger, there’s only a preaching-to-the-choir sense of foregone conclusions. Why bother asking questions when you already think you know the answers?
Worse than that, however, is the rank, oppressive narcissism Brand displays throughout. Even during interview segments featuring members of the working-class people he’s ostensibly defending, Brand always makes sure that the audience sees his very visible reactions, as if we needed constant reminders of just how concerned he truly is about us down below. (He even stoops to the level of showing a woman’s daughter cradling him during an interview—a move that makes him no different than a baby-kissing politician mongering for votes.) Not that anyone would expect his collaborator to keep his own ego in check: As ever, Winterbottom is the chameleonic auteur, shifting his aesthetic—which, in this case, includes intrusive, all-capital on-screen text, gratuitous color filters, and an angelic plain-white background whenever Brand is seen narrating in front of the camera—to suit Brand’s self-aggrandizing needs. The result of all this is a piece of bald-faced agitprop that may well make one wish Moore himself had tackled the subject of the vast societal inequalities revealed by the financial crisis. At least with him, we might leave the theater thinking more about actual issues than about how much its maker loves himself.
If Russell Brand is following the Michael Moore playbook in The Emperor’s New Clothes, then writer-director-actor Tim Blake Nelson is taking on a similarly dubious model in his new film Anesthesia: the network-narrative drama that’s given birth to the highs of Robert Altman’s Nashville and the lows of Paul Haggis’s Crash. Alas, Nelson’s film tilts more toward the latter than the former in terms of quality: The characters may feel less like thesis-demonstrating pawns than Haggis’s characters do, but the end result feels about as manipulative.
The grand theme for this particular roundelay is intoned by Kristen Stewart—here playing Sophie, a self-destructive philosophy student at Columbia University—when, in a rant delivered to a therapist, she angrily cries out, “Why is this world so selfish?” while railing against the human disconnection she sees every day (texting and emailing included, natch). She delivers this lengthy broadside in the presence of Prof. Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston), who’s not only at the cusp of retirement, but also on the cusp of death, as is revealed in the film’s second scene, when an unrelated couple, Sam (Corey Stoll) and Nicole (Mickey Sumner), is woken up by Prof. Zarrow after having just been knifed and bloodied after a brutal mugging, the cause of which is revealed later on in the film. Sam, it turns out, is cheating on his wife, Sarah (Gretchen Mol), who cares for their kids in a small New Jersey town and is basically yet another example of suburban ennui—a feeling of disappointment that she tries to drown in drink. Then there’s the professor’s son, Adam (Nelson himself), whose wife, Jill (Jessica Hecht), has just discovered a tumor in her ovary; and their two children, one of whom has a girlfriend who convinces him to sneak away from home on the night of his mother’s operation for the possibility of losing his virginity. And that’s just the tip of a roster of characters that also includes Joe (K. Todd Freeman), the junkie who his lawyer friend, Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), desperately tries to help despite a big case he has coming up.
Yes, in Anesthesia, Nelson had essentially cooked up yet another of those “everything is connected” interlocking narratives that were seemingly in vogue during the aughts. Not that this is inherently an inferior approach to storytelling; to his credit, Nelson doesn’t resort to the blunt narrative contrivances of the aforementioned Crash, the show-offy visual trickery of Traffic, and the temporal gimmickry of Alejandro González Iñárritu films like 21 Grams and Babel. And to an extent, Nelson’s committed cast almost helps him bring this film off: Stoll and Sumner’s intimate tenderness, Stewart’s despairing anguish, and Waterston’s eloquent nobility all breathe more emotional life to their cardboard characters than is evident in Nelson’s script. All of its well-acted and -directed individual moments, however, aren’t enough to disguise the saccharine banality at the heart of Anesthesia, whose overarching plea for sympathy toward your fellow man is voiced in a final lecture by Prof. Zarrow to—no joke—sustained on-screen applause from his students. Such blatant self-congratulation may be enough to negate any goodwill one may feel toward Nelson simply on the basis of its agreeable message.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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