Ari Aster’s latest frequently goes off the beaten path – for worse.
There’s an animated scene halfway through Beau is Afraid that sums up the film perfectly. As the titular star imagines himself in an alternate life played out on a stage, we watch how it all plays out from beginning to end. The scene makes for the film’s best (and most unique) segment. However, as the scene goes on, it goes on…and on…and on some more, to the point that you begin to wonder whether it ever will end. Unfortunately, this scene is a microcosm of Beau is Afraid: It’s a film filled with numerous scenes in its three-hour runtime that go on much longer than they should. Instead of feeling the anxiety its main character tries to cope with, you feel exhausted by how most scenes are overly drawn out.
On paper, the premise of Beau is Afraid is simple: A middle-aged man (Joaquin Phoenix) coping with anxiety tries to get back home to his mother (Patti LuPone). But the film is much deeper than that, as we watch Beau deal with an on-going psychological battle thanks to his upbringing as a child, which may or may not ultimately lead to a confrontation between mother and son. Couple that with Beau’s anxiety driving him up a wall in the worst ways possible in his quest to get back home to his mother, and you can only imagine what happens from there. Have you ever forgotten your keys or phone as you leave your house? Imagine losing either item and the worst resulting outcome, and that’s what you repeatedly get here.
Beau is Afraid is a fascinating concept from Ari Aster, a talented filmmaker who continues to come up with original ideas that are far more intriguing than most films released by his colleagues who have put their mark on Hollywood in recent years. If you’re familiar with Ari’s previous work (Hereditary, Midsommar), you likely won’t be weirded out by anything you see here. However, Beau is Afraid takes one too many detours in its fable-like odyssey, and that serves to wear out the viewers who are along for the journey. It’s one thing to have a film with a deeper meaning than just a point-A-to-point-B story, and those films always will have a more lasting impact on its viewers. But it’s quite another to take a film a step or two further, expanding its protracted story centered around anxiety, to the point that the viewer feels as if it is being beaten into their head. It doesn’t make for a lasting experience, but rather one that grows tiresome and leaves its viewers wondering more times than not when the next scene will arrive, detracting them from what’s playing out on screen at any given point of the film.
Every act of Beau is Afraid reaches a high point that shows a great film hidden somewhere beneath this current cut being released nationwide this weekend. These high points show how everyone involved in this endeavor is dedicated to the craft of the story Aster wrote here. But once it reaches the high points, the film quickly veers off the path in an attempt to dig deeper into its subject material; it’s so obvious that these stretches of the film needed trimming as they feel like rest stops and add little to nothing that we don’t already know. Eighth Grade, another A24 film that centered around anxiety, handled anxiety in a more straightforward manner that kept its audiences invested in the story it was trying to tell.
Aside from being funnier than you might expect, one thing going for Beau is Afraid are the performances of the cast from top to bottom, beginning with Joaquin Phoenix, who is in almost every scene. Without a doubt in his most interesting role in quite some time, Phoenix commands the screen and keeps this film from ever being dull. In smaller roles, Patti LuPone as Beau’s mom is outstanding; Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, and Kylie Rogers are all great as a family, and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s performance as Beau’s therapist is further proof of how uber talented the 73-year-old actor is.
An on-going discussion in Hollywood is the frequency of longer films being released right now, and Beau is Afraid, at its three-hour runtime, is the perfect example of why longer does not always mean better. It has been reported that Beau is Afraid is A24’s most expensive film ever and that it was originally titled Disappointment Blvd. And that’s exactly what you’ll get here: Left at the boulevard of disappointment given the talent attached to this project.