‘Beau Is Afraid’ Review: Aster and Phoenix Get Jewlirious

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Beau Is Afraid, director Ari Aster's epic portrayal of a living nightmare starring a terrific Joaquin Phoenix.
User Rating: 8

How valid are qualifiers for a reviewer? Critics seem to be attacked so often (through social media) these days for liking certain films too much and others not enough (despite the scores for mainstream films averaging higher than ever when looking at the numbers). Reviewing Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid is not daunting, as it still boils down to being just another movie. But getting into a film Aster no doubt knows has a limit to its appeal; I have to wonder if my being Jewish or having a fondness for this sort of surrealist horror with a sense of humor puts me in some kind of advantageous position. Of course, I also don’t have an overbearing Jewish mother, let alone suffer from anxiety attacks, so it’s not as though I’m entirely on the wavelength of this 3-hour A24 epic. Still, evaluating a weird piece of art designed to be analyzed and debated will always feel like a reminder that objectivity does not exist in film criticism.

I mean, sure, one can state the general plot of this film as fact. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau Wassermann, a paranoid man who will embark on an odyssey to get home to his mother. How important is this? About as important as saying Aster’s Hereditary is about a family coping with loss, and Midsommar focused on an educational college vacation that takes a turn for the worse. If the word “odyssey” is a part of the plot description, concentrating on just the story momentum seems like the least important aspect. Beau Is Afraid is more or less focused on getting inside the mind of a man stuck in a nightmarish reality.

On the outside, Beau will encounter various obstacles, challenging the audience and filling them with the occasional dark delight. Whatever post-modern world Beau Is Afraid is set in, it’s as alarming to observe as it is hilarious to see what occurs. If we’re not watching Beau navigate the crime-ridden city he lives in, we’re otherwise placed inside his decidedly unsafe apartment or the home of a seemingly well-meaning couple portrayed by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane. Naturally, their genial nature is merely a mask for some unknown horror that will be revealed when the time comes. The journey from their only grows stranger.

This is a movie not exactly full of twists and turns, but it does intend to shock the viewer in ways that will prompt laughter (nervous or otherwise) while also suggesting what this man is going through and has had to deal with throughout his life, and will likely keep him in such an anxious state. The fact that a film full of so many dark scenarios can still be deemed a comedy, to varying degrees, will likely seem puzzling. With all of that in mind, a natural question emerges: Why?

Perhaps I can explore that further down the line (insert a shameless podcast plug here as a placeholder for when a meatier discussion occurs). As it stands, without revealing too much of what happens, whether or not Aster is delving into his own personal struggles and relationships, Beau Is Afraid is a movie exploring the extreme reactions that stem from guilt and humiliation, particularly in how that relates to the connection between a mother and son. It’s handled as bleakly as possible, which is perhaps why its comedic edge feels like Aster providing some relief rather than putting the audience through three hours of misery.

Now, there will undoubtedly be a significant percentage of viewers that find the experience grueling. Not that the movie is too cryptic for its own good (though self-indulgent is fair – most movies are), but Aster is not exactly holding anyone’s hand through all of this either. While one can suss out some of the influences (Kafka and Charlie Kaufman come to mind), there seems to be so much effort taken to have this film exist in its own bubble that it risks feeling redundant in what it ultimately amounts to.

However, this is where the skill involved in the craft comes in. Aster has been given the biggest budget seen yet for an A24 production, and every cent is certainly on screen. Having viewed the film in IMAX (an unexpected event), Beau Is Afraid may not have the seismic scope offered by another recent epic from James “Pandora 4 Eva” Cameron, but the attention to detail is clearly evident. This movie invites the viewer to take in a lot of visual stimuli coming through in the  stylized ways reality is upset by where Beau’s mind is at. With that in mind, the cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski does plenty to deliver on a sense of scale fit for such an intensely character-focused feature. Similarly, the visual effects work is subtle (with a large pair of exceptions) but does well to further build out this living nightmare.

For all of Beau’s troubles, Phoenix is fantastic here. All the nervous energy that he knows how to harness for the sake of both dramatic and comedic results pays off in spades. There’s a physicality utilized incredibly well when considering how exhausting making a feature like this must have been. Even a lack of vanity rings true, with the film going seemingly out of its way to having Beau rack up plenty of facial injuries that make him unpleasant to look at. For an actor who’s shown he likes to experiment, Aster supplied a large canvas for Phoenix to work with.

Other performers leave an impression as well. Nathan Lane, in particular, shines in the way he feels out of his element yet perfectly fit for what he supplies here. Additionally, it’s as if Richard Kind wandered out of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and into this film to make sure any auteur’s feature dealing with Jewish anxiety has him on hand to raise the comedic states based on his inflections and gestures alone. And then there’s an appearance by Parker Posey that feels like the right kind of opposite energy needed to counter Beau during a pivotal moment.

No one may be ready, however, for theater star Patti LuPone as Beau’s mother. By the time her presence is finally featured in full in the film, having been worn out by so much that’s preceded whatever she plans to bring, one could say the movie gets a second or third wind. No, it’s not exactly pleasant, as the point of this performance is to be as grating as it gets. But then one may wonder if Beau is letting his mind exaggerate what he’s seeing and hearing or if LuPone’s Mona operates in a way that ideally pushes her son for the better. With that said, sometimes it just is what it is. Mona has severely harmed her son’s psyche, and this film shows the ultimate fallout. With limited screen time to make that clearly register, LuPone does a lot with what’s given.

If strange occurrences, fits of rage, out-of-body experiences, and other means that lead to scenarios where a character has to confront their greatest fear sound intriguing, at the least, Beau Is Afraid is worth the attention. At three hours for a movie like this, Aster is clearly less concerned with holding onto formalities when presenting one’s work to crowded multiplexes. Ideally, he’s answered his own questions by fully realizing whatever vision he had for this film. Now it’s back on the audience, let alone the critical establishment, to provide their own form of feedback. So, I’m back again, wondering if what I’m predisposed to has helped in any way. I certainly got a lot out of what I saw and am looking forward to interrogating it more as time passes. So, regardless of where this lands with the populace, I at least feel no guilt over it.

Beau Is Afraid opens in theaters on April 21, 2023.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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