How much do you really want to know about horrormeister Ari Aster’s preoccupations and anxieties? That’s a question to consider seriously before subjecting yourself to Beau Is Afraid, a bleak black comedy that’s very occasionally hilarious, though mostly just tedious. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau, who’s born into this world in the movie’s opening scene, escorted by his mother’s muffled screams and staticky, ominous-sounding thunder cracks. We can’t, at first, see baby or mother—only mysterious, inky darkness punctuated by blurry red flashes. Initially, the infant isn’t crying, and presumably not breathing; his mother panics, snapping at the doctors. Then we hear a slap and a yowl, and one man’s life begins. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Beau Is Afraid is three hours of one man’s dark night of the soul, a howl of pain that occasionally twists itself into a guffaw. After clambering out of the birth canal and growing to middle age—Aster skips large portions of that business, thank God—Beau sits in the office of his shrink (Stephen McKinley Henderson), sharing, in halting language, his feelings about his impending long-distance trip to see his mother. He’s OK with it, he thinks. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, his mother calls his cellphone—he doesn’t pick up—and we hear the message she leaves, enthusing about her affection for him and making it clear she’s excited about seeing him the next day. What’s not to love about this mom? Still, he’s going to need help getting through this visit, and Dr. Shrink writes a scrip for a new medicine, with the zippy name Zypnotycril, and warns his patient, more than once, to always take it with water.
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Beau heads home to his apartment in a seedy building in a nightmare version of New York, what tourists imagine the worst of New York to be. The streets are crawling with mentally ill hooligans, many of them naked and dirty, with matted hair—just another day in the nabe. Beau’s flat is dismal but tidy. He nukes a frozen dinner (touted on the package as being “the best of Hawaiian and Irish cuisine”), catches up on the TV news (the city is on the lookout for a violent nutter who’s been nicknamed the Birthday Boy Stab Man) and turns in, needing to be up early for his flight. What follows is a cracked symphony of paranoia, in which a belligerent, unseen neighbor repeatedly interrupts Beau’s insomnia to complain about how much noise he’s making (he is, obviously, making none). He oversleeps and makes a mad dash out the door to make his flight, only to have his luggage and keys snatched away by an invisible thief when he’s not looking. Overwhelmed with anxiety, he downs a Zypnotyrcil, only to realize his water has been turned off. And when he dashes across the street to the local bodega, desperately grabbing a bottle of H2O, his credit card is declined. As he struggles to pay by counting out the chicken feed in his pocket, we see the multitudes of street crazies streaming into his apartment building through the front door, which, keyless, he has propped open. They’re all going to his apartment, naturally, where they’ll engage in a destructive hootenanny of debauchery as he watches, helplessly, from the fire escape outside his window.
Zoey Kang (A24)Nathan Lane, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Ryan in Ari Aster’s ‘Beau Is Afraid’
That’s not the whole plot of Beau Is Afraid; it’s barely the beginning. This early section is also the most grimly entertaining, if relentless, section of the movie. But it’s all downhill from there. Beau’s adventures include, but are not limited to, a semi-peaceful interlude at the home of a seemingly benign suburban couple played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan; a stretch spent with a hippie theater troupe whose plays, staged in the forest, reveal deep truths about his own life; and a reunion with a lost love (played by the always pleasingly wacky Parker Posey), which offers poor Beau an all too fleeting respite from his misery.
How much manicured craziness can one movie hold? Aster is out to test the limits. Beau Is Afraid is Aster’s third film as a writer-director; it’s both more ambitious and more tiresome than his earlier pictures, the 2018 grief-horror extravaganza Hereditary and the 2019 pagan-nightmare tableau Midsommar. Guilt, shame, paranoia, Freudian mom issues—you name it, Aster slaps it up there on the screen, with Phoenix as our jittery naif, stumbling from one traumatic episode to the next. His performance is like a three-hour-long murmur; with his watery eyes and perpetually slack jaw, his Beau looks a little zonked by it all, as if he can’t believe all of this is happening to him. By the time his haranguing, perpetually disapproving mother appears—she’s played by Patti LuPone, who bites down on every line as if it were a piece of overcooked steak—we see exactly what the problem is. (When in doubt, blame mom.)
Beau Is Afraid is stylish all right—Aster can’t stay away from style. Groovy low-angle shots, dream sequences rendered in wacky point-of-view perspectives, dreamlike vistas of dark water shot in glimmering light: Aster borrows from the best (Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman) and the worst (Gaspar Noé) in this belabored work of slapstick agony. It’s the most magnificent act of oversharing you’ll see all year, a banquet of all the TMI you can eat, just for the price of a ticket. Though when you think about it, shouldn’t Aster be paying us?