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‘Beau Is Afraid’ Review: Joaquin Phoenix Plays a Simpering Man-Child in Ari Aster’s Runaway Arrested

With its indulgent three-hour running time and telling no-festival release strategy, the A24 darling's latest reflects what happens when a technically gifted artist is given too much creative freedom.

Courtesy of A24 Films

Poor Beau. Nearly half a century on Earth, and he’s never really lived. Sure, he was born — that much director Ari Aster depicts from Beau’s point of view at the outset of his wildly self-indulgent and frequently surreal third feature, “Beau Is Afraid,” lingering long enough to witness the infant’s umbilical cord being snipped — but what has Beau done with his life since then? Can it be said that he ever really developed an identity apart from his successful single mom, Mona Wasserman, who haunts the film for the better part of three hours before finally revealing herself?

Not since “Psycho” has an off-screen mother loomed so large over a film’s protagonist, played here by Joaquin Phoenix, cowering from the world. The Hitchcock comparison could be misleading, since Aster (who helmed indie studio A24’s two most successful horror movies, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar”) makes a surprising tonal shift away from traditional nightmare material for this deranged road trip, which follows Beau cross-country — and through several substitute families — to face his intimidating Jewish mom.

Aster’s signature slow-building sense of dread pervades a film that can be outrageously violent, although the fear advertised by its title is more satirical than scary, as the cult-fave filmmaker pokes fun at a hapless man-child crippled by guilt, shame and countless other neuroses. He’s persecuted by agoraphobia and fear of spiders, for starters, plus there’s that genetic condition (swollen testicles, nearly subliminal here, but soon to flood the internet in animated GIF form) that’s kept him a virgin all these years.

Watching the movie’s transparently Freudian opening scene, it’s kind of a shame that Iñárritu beat the director to it, since “Bardo” began with a newborn so repelled by the world that the obstetricians actually forced him back in the womb. That sight gag would’ve suited Beau better. Instead, after showing Beau’s delivery, Aster skips forward four dozen years to find the mama’s boy in psychoanalysis, where character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson makes as convivial a therapist as one could hope to confide in.

Beau has enormous trouble managing his anxiety, which is understandable, since Aster depicts his terrifying inner-city neighborhood as a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape, the way Swedish director Roy Andersson might have filmed it: Everyone looks threatening, from the kids with firearms to the face-tattooed creep who chases Beau to his front door. The simple act of crossing the street becomes an almost superhuman challenge, and in the time it takes to do so, all the freaks Beau tried to avoid outside march zombielike up to his apartment, where they proceed to tear the place apart.

Had the day gone as planned, Beau would be on a plane to Florida to see his mother. (That’s Broadway legend Patti LuPone’s voice we hear on the other end of the phone.) But Beau has a way of self-sabotaging, which becomes a running joke in a movie that inflicts the trials of Job upon a character who starts out from a far less stable place. Beau has no children or fortune, so the setbacks don’t resemble a test of faith so much as the whims of some cruel god — in this case, the director — punishing his creation for our amusement.

There’s no denying Charlie Kaufman’s influence on Aster’s worldview, crossed with the navel-spelunking cynicism of underground comic artists. But longtime fans will recognize the same long-standing obsessions that Aster’s been picking at since his AFI thesis film, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons,” a transgressive, incestuous quasi-“Cosby” sitcom sendup.

Horror and comedy are flip sides of the same coin, confronting taboos en route to catharsis, and detail-oriented Aster seems uniquely wired to meld the two disciplines. From Grace and Roger (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), the disconcertingly cheery couple who “adopt” Beau after hitting him with their truck, to the motley commune of so-called Orphans of the Forest who rescue him on the run, Aster’s ideas can be quite funny, as he tiptoes the line between relatable and random.

Still, while Beau is easily lulled into a false sense of comfort, the audience can’t ignore the pervasive undercurrent of menace. It’s not just that Beau isn’t safe; he’s in active danger at nearly all times, as people around him behave in unpredictable ways — like the nervous cop who mistakes him for a serial killer or the PTSD-addled ex-soldier (Denis Ménochet) who eyes Beau as if he’d like to rip him limb from limb. That can be entertaining for a while, and there will surely be a small contingent who embrace this as their new favorite movie (until A24’s next bizart-house offering comes along), but three hours doesn’t feel at all reasonable for such an uneven collection of sketches.

Strategically parked about halfway through is a terrific stop-motion fantasy sequence, overseen by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña (“The Wolf House”), which blossoms out of an immersive stage play Beau sits down to watch his newfound forest “family” perform. The show speaks directly to him, suggesting a more fulfilling course that his life could take. Like so much of “Beau Is Afraid,” this archetypal digression boils down to a punchline. But it also has the magical effect of making the film seem so much more epic than it is, clearing the way for the last (and least successful) hour.

The “home stretch,” as we might call it (and this is a spoiler, so skip this paragraph until you’ve seen the film), amounts to a frustrating, fool-me-twice twist upon a twist. Much earlier, as Beau is scrambling to make up for his missed flight, he learns that a falling chandelier smashed his mother’s head. The family lawyer (Richard Kind) insists he get home right away for the funeral, but absurd obstacles have a way of impeding his trip, leaving no room for grief. When Beau arrives, instead of finally being free of his mother, he’s obliged to relive every trauma she ever inflicted upon him.

It takes an awfully long time for Aster to reveal the source of the mommy issues that we detect but can’t possibly comprehend from the get-go. Deprived of these flashbacks (in which the great Zoe Lister-Jones plays Mona), what are we to assume Beau wants from life? Phoenix plays the character as a slump-shouldered and spineless loser, and though one could hardly hope for a more committed performance, the casting feels the most predictable in an ensemble of unconventional choices. It’s a role that might have more aptly gone to a comedian, à la Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love” or Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.”

Early on, Aster introduces a childhood sweetheart named Pearl for whom Beau has been saving himself all this time, so audiences anticipate — or at least hope to see — a reunion with her later. It’s a treat when erstwhile indie princess Parker Posey eventually shows up in the role, though Aster substitutes sadism for romance in their long-awaited meet-up, abusing both characters to the strains of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”

And then there’s the Patti LuPone version of Mona, who manages to punish Beau from beyond the grave for all the ways he’s blamed her. Ideas teased throughout, like a bath-time dream and some memory involving an attic, are meant to pay off here, but instead the film seems to implode in on itself. By this point, Beau’s anxieties have so overwhelmed reality that Aster’s sick stunt of a last scene falls flat, set in a badly rendered arena where all the traumas Beau has endured over his life are reframed from Mona’s point of view.

In “Beau Is Afraid,” Aster tracks his titular antihero from birth to death, from psychoanalysis to this cheeky subversion of Freud, where the child assumes responsibility for his parents’ trauma, rather than the other way around. But he’s crammed so many ideas into this unwieldy container, the film capsizes. In retrospect, “Hereditary” did too, but we forgave it because its finale was frightening, at least. Here, wrapping with an anticlimax seems to be Aster’s idea of a joke.

Variety's Peter Debruge contributed to this post.

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