By Megan Bianco
We’ve seen how once in a blue moon a major studio will toss a bunch of money to a popular stylistic writer-director with no restrictions. Nearly every time this happens, the movies end up doing only decently with critics and terribly with audiences.
We’ve already gotten a few of these types of movies in the past year, and right after a global lockdown, no less. So, it’s a little bewildering to see the film industry continually struggle in real time.
Unlike Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022), which was essentially a traditional action/adventure with some flashy direction, or Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022)—a movie I generally had problems with, but also featured elements I appreciated—Ari Aster’s new Beau Is Afraid is very hard to simply enjoy from beginning to end.
It’s three full hours of Joaquin Phoenix’s Beau experiencing either an anxiety attack, a nightmare, a paranoid fantasy, or all of the above, while getting bombarded with bad luck and misfortunes.
Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones play Beau’s overbearing mother during various periods of his life. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan are a seemingly caring couple with alternate intentions who take in Beau after a serious accident. And Parker Posey appears as “the one who got away” in Beau’s nonexistent love life.
There’s no doubt that Aster is a visionary artist. Even with the polarizing, pessimistic nature of Beau Is Afraid, we get some striking direction, editing and cinematography, just as we did with his horror hits Midsommar (2019) and Hereditary (2018).
The thing is, those two movies felt as if they utilized their genre a lot more naturally than Beau does. I’m not even sure what Beau wants to be. It’s technically a surreal, dark comedy with fantasy elements, but it’s not grounded enough for anything to pay off realistically or metaphorically.
The cast is solid and filled with talent, but the characters are insufferable. The lengthy runtime makes Beau Is Afraid feel extra tedious.
Obviously, we wouldn’t have entertainment without an artist’s vision. But in this case, throwing three harsh hours of self-indulgence and no reason to care or root for any of the characters into major theaters, really isn’t the best release strategy.
And for the record, I still think the script’s working title of Disappointment Blvd. sounds much better than the official Beau Is Afraid.