It's not everyone who gets mugged and knifed and has the presence of mind to quote Montaigne with his dying breath. Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston) is a philosophy professor at Columbia University in New York City, where he's taught for 34 years. Every Friday night, he stops on his way home to buy flowers for Marcia (Glenn Close), his lovely wife of 46 years. Tonight, it's hydrangeas. And he's so busy being a nice guy and exchanging first names with the flower seller that he doesn't notice the half-crazed druggie approaching him, wanting money for his next high. Trying to have a philosophical discussion at that point can get you killed. Even if you meant well.
Ironically, our likeable prof has been teaching a class on existentialism, and the meaning of existence, especially in light of the futility and despair of the world. Walter's son, Adam (Tim Blake Nelson, who also wrote and directed) knows something about despair. His wife, Marta (Natasha Wagner), has just been diagnosed with an ovarian tumor, and they're trying to schedule the surgery as soon as possible. Adam and Marta seem to be good people, though a bit tightly wound, which doesn't fully explain why their teenage son and daughter have become stoners, but nothing is easy for anybody in this slice-of-life urban scenario.
Sarah (Gretchen Mol) is suffering through an unhappy migration to the suburbs, where she has forsaken her career to raise their two daughters, while her husband, Sam (Corey Stoll) claims he's away on business in China, but is in fact in the City, busy having an affair. His girlfriend is starting to press him about making a decision to leave his wife, but by the time he realizes he's about to make a huge mistake, Sarah informs him that she already knows, and don't bother to come home, anyway. Talk about existential angst.
Professor Zarrow had a graduate student, Sophie (Kristen Stewart), who is in such personal despair that she's begun burning herself with a curling iron. Just to feel something. Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), a prominent attorney, reluctantly puts his brother, Joe (K. Todd Freeman) in detox, but fails to check up on him because he's made the mistake of sitting down at the bar with the opposing attorney, and they've both had too much to drink, and one thing leads to another......
What do these all have in common? Mostly, they intersect at the point of the mugging, but all are glazed with the same erudite cynicism that colors the whole film. Some would call it intellectual sophistication, others might deem it sophomoric sophistry, but either way, there's going to be a self-conscious self-awareness on display with all these characters, displayed even in the dialogue of precocious children. (And of course, as in Lake Woebegone, all of them are above average.)
The audio is frustratingly difficult; too many lines are treated as throwaways that deserve clearer contemplation. But this unusual script and talented cast deserve some attention, particularly in the January of filmdom's discontent.

Questions For Discussion:
  1. The professor lectures without notes, quoting Schleiermacher in his crowded class of attentive supplicants---what's your most memorable quote from a famous philosopher?
  2. Have you known people who deliberately hurt themselves? What was their motivation?
  3. What does the Christian faith have to say about all the “meaningless of existence” and “futility of life” represented here?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Athens, Texas