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Horror-comedy 'Beau Is Afraid' is a passion project gone astray

Joaquin Phoenix's character is attacked, tortured, threatened, knocked unconscious and terrorized in Ari Aster's <em>Beau is Afraid.</em>
Joaquin Phoenix's character is attacked, tortured, threatened, knocked unconscious and terrorized in Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid.

Thirty-six-year-old writer-director Ari Aster makes deliberately paced, exquisitely crafted chillers about guilt, repression and super-messed-up family dynamics. I've been an admirer of his ever since getting scared out of my wits five years ago by Hereditary, with its mash-up of demonic possession and domestic turmoil. Less scary but no less gripping was his nightmarish travelogue Midsommar, about a relationship that rots under the Scandinavian sun.

Now, after sitting through Aster's latest, the three-hour horror-comedy fantasia Beau Is Afraid, my admiration hasn't dimmed, exactly; it's the kind of freakish jumble only a gifted filmmaker could make. And I'm grateful that a company as adventurous as A24 is willing to give an ambitious director carte blanche to make the unhinged passion project of his dreams. But Beau Is Afraid still strikes me as an audacious misfire. Aster is still flicking at his characters' raw nerves, to say nothing of ours, but for the first time, he seems to be doing it more for effect than anything else.

Beau Wassermann, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a middle-aged sad sack who, true to the title, is afraid of a lot of things. He's afraid of getting sick and dying. He's afraid of the side effects of the medication prescribed by his therapist. He's afraid to have sex, convinced that it'll kill him. He's afraid to set foot outside his shabby apartment, which is understandable, since he lives in an anonymous urban hellscape full of zombie-movie vibes. Most of all, though, Beau is afraid of his mother (played by the great Patti LuPone), whom he's planning to visit for the first time in ages.

But on the day of his intended departure, a bizarre sequence of events causes Beau to miss his flight, which sends him on a long, protracted odyssey that falls into four distinct chapters, each one weirder than the last.

In the first and most suspenseful chapter, Beau tries to leave his apartment, is attacked by a naked serial killer and ultimately gets hit by a car. The second chapter finds him recuperating in the home of a suburban couple — they're played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan — who are friendly enough at first, though they seem determined to keep him from leaving.

The third and most beguiling chapter finds Beau lost in a mysterious forest, where he stumbles on a wandering theater troupe. The show they put on for him — Aster makes use of some strikingly beautiful animation here — offers a poignant glimpse of an alternate life path for Beau, one where he's able to find true love and raise a family. But in some ways, this is the cruelest episode of all, since Aster dangles the possibility of happiness mainly so that he can yank it away. The fourth chapter finds Beau returning to his childhood home, where all manner of terrible memories and ugly secrets are waiting for him.

Aster gives all this surreal mayhem a fever-dream intensity, and as always, he leaves us uncertain about whether we should laugh or recoil. There are countless references to earlier movies, including Hitchcock's monstrous-mother classic Psycho and Charlie Kaufman's depressive meta-comedy Synecdoche, New York.

Aster also brings in terrific actors, like Parker Posey and Richard Kind, in crucial supporting roles. But what it all adds up to, in the end, is not a whole lot: a bludgeoning Freudian nightmare, in which a gibbering man-child does battle with his domineering mom and his feelings of shame, anxiety and self-loathing. It's not clear whether Aster is parodying or just regurgitating these overworked tropes — or maybe a little of both. It doesn't really matter. After a while, Beau Is Afraid becomes so thuddingly repetitive that it doesn't feel scary or revelatory; it feels like drudgery.

Phoenix is so good at playing damaged souls that he almost feels like too obvious a casting choice. There isn't much to Beau as a character, beneath all his panicky shrieks and strained grimaces. It's easy to feel for him, the way you would feel for anyone you've seen get attacked, tortured, threatened, knocked unconscious and terrorized for three hours. But he's a blank — one that Aster, for all his formidable skill, hasn't been able to fill in.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.