Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Beau Is Afraid (2023) dir. Ari Aster

Aster goes IMAX

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What a difference a few years make.

In 2019, the usually ultra-canny A24 flinched at the release of Under the Silver Lake, the unclassifiable two-and-a-half-hour nightmare comedy follow-up to horror auteur David Robert Mitchell’s breakout It Follows; amidst hostile critical reception, the studio punted the film’s theatrical debut three times before relegating it to a quiet digital release. But the A24 of 2023 is in a decidedly different position; following the steamroller success of the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, excess is in. So it is that Beau Is Afraid, the unclassifiable three-hour nightmare comedy follow-up to horror auteur Ari Aster’s twin breakouts Hereditary and Midsommar, is not only being released to theaters, but in goddamn IMAX (I caught it in special preview “IMAX Fan Event” screening, a ritual more often reserved for franchise blockbusters). Will Beau recapture the success of Everything Everywhere and become A24’s next breakthrough cultural phenomenon? Good lord, no. But it’s a hell of a thing– easily the wildest film you’re ever going to see on an IMAX screen– and proof that Aster is one of the most unique filmmakers working today.

This is the part of the review where I usually provide a brief synopsis of the film’s plot. That’s going to be a challenge in the case of Beau Is Afraid, both because its rambling, episodic plot defies concise description, and because revealing the specific unpleasant things which occur in an Ari Aster film feels tantamount to spoiling the cameos in a superhero movie. Still, the facts of the case. Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wasserman, a chronically anxious man making preparations to visit his domineering mother, Mona (Patti Lupone), on the anniversary of his father’s death (supposedly of a heart attack at the moment of Beau’s conception). His trip is complicated when, immediately upon leaving his squalid apartment, he is simultaneously hit by a car and attacked by a serial killer dubbed “The Birthday Boy Stab Man.” When he awakens, he finds himself laid up in the suburban home of a “kindly” doctor (Nathan Lane), his wife (Amy Ryan), and the PTSD-wracked comrade of their deceased son (Denis Menochet). Beau’s odyssey only gets stranger from there, and involves a forest-dwelling experimental theater troupe, a long-lost childhood love (Parker Posey), and the outside chance that the entire world is actively conspiring against Beau specifically.

Beau is Afraid is Aster’s third film, but it’s easy to think of it as his sophomore effort; Hereditary and Midsommar were produced and released in such quick succession that they’re practically a double feature. Like Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, Beau Is Afraid is the work of a filmmaker stretching his legs, granted a seemingly unlimited sum of money to pursue as many ideas as he can pack into its running time. The early passages, set in the urban hellscape which Beau calls home, play like gutter-Fellini, each frame packed with so many colorful extras engaging in various perversions that it will surely take several viewings to take them all in. Later, what begins as a stage production blends into a gorgeous rotoscoped meditation on life, loss, and the hero’s journey. The result is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, a film which places you in the shoes of its overwhelmed protagonist by building a monument to sensory overload. Even if you don’t watch Beau on a 60-foot IMAX screen, you might walk out of the theater feeling as dizzy and bloodied as Beau himself.

Those still traumatized by Aster’s first two films might find it hard to believe that the director would make a comedy. Of course, once you get past the shock value, those films are not without humor themselves; Midsommar is built around the wry premise that its central couple are so busy breaking up that they don’t notice they’re in the middle of a folk horror movie, and even Hereditary can be viewed as the world’s longest and darkest Jewish Mother joke. Beau is indeed a comedy, and a very funny one, but its humor is modulated only a step or two past the bleakness of its predecessors. There is a phone call, for example, which exists in the same extreme emotional territory as the opening gutpunch of Midsommar or the second-act lulu of Hereditary, but while Phoenix plays his end hauntingly straight, the scene is here a source of gallows humor (it is emblematic of Aster’s comic sensibility that the line “I am so sorry” provides one of the biggest laughs of the film). Beau Is Afraid contains more carnage and wailing grief than the typical Hollywood gut-buster, but chances are you’ll find something to laugh at.

It is here that Aster’s long-professed admiration for comedian-filmmaker Albert Brooks finally makes sense (he wrote the liner notes for the Criterion release of Defending Your Life, a decision which left many scratching their heads at the time). Everything in Beau’s life is a comic exaggeration of his own worst-case-scenario catastrophization, a dark thought bubble realized in cinemascopic widescreen. He need only turn his back on his unlocked apartment for five minutes, for example, before it is invaded and ransacked by dozens of hedonistic street people. Beau feels like the world is out to get him because it is out to get him, and anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety or intrusive thoughts will likely chuckle in cathartic recognition.

If there’s a flaw in Beau’s Boschian comic vision, it’s Beau himself. Nebbishy as they are, the protagonists of Brooks’ films are avatars of their creator, and embody a clear and sharply personal comic worldview. Beau, on the other hand, is something of an empty vessel, an everyschlub pitched somewhere between Franz Kafka and Mr. Bean. Phoenix, as always, throws his whole body into his performance (it’s easy to forget following our national Joker overdose that he really is one of our most compelling actors), but the character is such a subverbal mess that he’s easier to pity than to relate to. Aster’s films are marked by the ruthless emotional interrogation of their characters, but one can here sense him holding back somewhat, unwilling or unable to turn that spotlight on himself quite yet in his career. If Aster continues down this road (and that seems to be the case– he describes his next film, Eddington, as “a western-noir dark ensemble comedy”), I would like to see him develop an “Ari Aster character,” in the vein of Brooks or Woody Allen, rather than trot out another faceless punching bag.

It should go without saying that Beau Is Afraid is going to be wildly divisive, both among the Aster faithful looking for another Hereditary, and even more so among unsuspecting moviegoers lured in by a comedy starring the guy from Joker. But Beau offers a cinematic experience quite unlike anything else you’re likely to see in the multiplex, combining the brainy experimentalism of ‘70s New Hollywood with the anything-goes anarchy of ‘90s underground comix and blasting them against an impossibly large canvas. In an increasingly samey cinematic environment, Beau represents something you have not seen before, and will leave you with any number of lines, images, and situations which will stick with you for years to come. It’s always thrilling to watch an honest-to-god auteur run wild with the possibilities of cinema, and I can’t wait to see which nightmare valleys Aster drags us through next.

Beau Is Afraid
2023
dir. Ari Aster
179 min.

Opens Friday, 4/21, in IMAX (?!?!) at AMC Boston Common, and on standard screens at Kendall Square Cinema and AMC Assembly Row

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