The Austin Chronicle

Beau Is Afraid

Rated R, 179 min. Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Zoe Lister-Jones, Parker Posey, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Richard Kind.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 21, 2023

While only being in his mid-30s, Ari Aster has already proved himself as a remarkable and visionary director. The same could be said of Steven Spielberg when he was around that age – and that's when he made 1941, a glorious mess of a movie that Spielberg himself has referred to as raisin soup (people like raisins, and people like soup, but that doesn't mean you should put them together).

Thus it is with Beau Is Afraid, Aster's absurdist comedy starring an as-always excellent Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Beau, a middle-aged Jewish man with a beyond-fractious relationship with his guilt-trip-inducing mother, Mona (LuPone). She's initially only heard on the other end of a phone, tut-tutting at her near-catatonic offspring, incapable as he is of functioning in the modern world. And who can blame him? After all, he lives in a spider-infested apartment in a crumbling building in a corner of a fictionalized crumbling urban hellscape that looks like what Lloyd Kaufman would create if he was given the budget.

Let's be clear, this is not (curse the term) elevated horror, but elevated Troma. Beau is a baffled naïf, attempting a cross-state trip to visit Mona that becomes even essential due to a curiously, grossly hilarious accident. In what seems to be a reference to Greek epics, Beau bumbles from strange encounter to stranger environment, placid and overmedicated. The road out of Tromaville leads to John Waters-esque plastic-covered-couch suburbia before rumbling on to a Lynchian surrealist nightmare mansion, almost as if Aster is aping the masters of Americana. To sate fans of his earlier horror work with Hereditary and Midsommar, he throws in a decapitation and a death by rocky plummet, but they only serve as a reminder that Aster is trying something new here.

Beau Is Afraid is never boring, but yet still manages to be tedious. It's endlessly inventive, but lacks the narrative or conceptual discipline to turn those inventions into something functional. It's rare to watch a film so constantly rip defeat from the jaws of victory, and vice versa. If Aster were a lesser filmmaker, then the end result would be simply unwatchable: But he's capable of pulling off wondrous storytelling, like a long storybook-style fantasy section in the middle that evokes both the bittersweet fabulism of Michel Gondry and the glowing visual control of Sophie Muller.

But at the same time those wild tonal shifts lead to a certain incoherence, like how Phoenix's neurotic catatonia sits uncomfortably with some wild but deliberate over-acting from a woefully miscast Nathan Lane and an ill-served Parker Posey as the adult version of Elaine, whom Beau has been mooning over since a cruise decades earlier. Those flashback sequences (with Nahapetian as young Beau, Antonelli as the teen Elaine and Lister-Jones as a disturbingly Oedipal Mona) set up what could be an emotionally meaningful ending, but instead Aster devolves into a subplot about giant testicles. Talk about Freudian symbolism revealed with all the subtlety of a brick.

Ultimately, Beau Is Afraid can never escape that it's a very belated addition to the oft-dissected shrewish Jewish mother trope, with Lupone as another domineering muter exposed in an increasingly heavy-handed resolution. The episodic nature of Beau's misadventures serves as both distraction and bloat, a metaphorical cavalcade that lacks the acerbic agility of many of its predecessor. There's even a certain level of indignation that Woody Allen did something similar with his "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of 1989's New York Stories in about a quarter of the time. This raisin soup results in cinematic constipation.

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