By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Ari Aster’s new movie Beau Is Afraid is a nutty one—a strangely funny, sometimes creepy and really weird black comedy that can loosely be described as being about an uptight guy with serious mommy issues.
In other words, another tricky-to-classify, genre-stretching slice of contemporary cinema from the New York City-born writer/director whose first couple of films proved to be among the finest one-two debut punches of the past decade.
I’m speaking of the uniquely stylized terror tales Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), both of which developed a sizable fan base for their maker. Hereditary, with its powerful story of a grieving family and the subsequent tragedies they endure; and Midsommar’s tale of troubled young American couple in Sweden who find themselves at the mercy of a Scandinavian pagan cult, served as Aster’s calling card to an audience looking for a little arthouse sensibility in their horror. They both remain unnerving (even after multiple viewings).
Aster’s committed fans began the buzz for Beau back in the winter of 2021 when distributor A24 first announced the movie (then titled Disappointment Blvd.) and that Joaquin Phoenix was on board to star as its fearful and paranoid title character.
The film arrived with a memorable off-the-record April 1 “premiere” at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn with a Q&A moderated by actor Emma Stone. The show was actually part of an April Fools’ Day surprise screening for an audience that thought they were sitting down to watch a director’s cut of Midsommar. Now that’s some fun fan service!
Beau Is Afraid officially opened on April 14 with a limited release at four locations in New York and Los Angeles. The results were a number of sold-out shows on both coasts, some very positive critical and audience response, and a healthy opening weekend gross of $320,000. After expanding from four screens to 965 the following week, the film rang up another $2.7 million in its second weekend. It leveled off in its third weekend, bringing in $1.2 million for a total domestic box office take of $4.2 million.
Beau is the latest movie from A24, who released Aster’s previous two films before really hitting the jackpot with this year’s smash hit Oscar winner Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Beau Is Afraid’s story follows the travails of the extremely anxious Beau Wasserman, the middle-aged son of a wealthy and ferocious mother named Mona, who’s brought to uproarious, regal life by the inimitable Patti Lupone.
Setting out on a trek from his sad, squalid apartment in a nameless, crime-ridden city to his mother’s sprawling estate, Beau endures all manner of strange, silly and menacing encounters with everyone from a shell-shocked former solider and an experimental theater troupe to his former teenage crush and a suburban couple who manage to kidnap him.
Along his episodic way from the city to the suburbs to a forest and beyond, there’s room for a delightfully colorful animated sequence, a running gag about Beau’s testicles, a handful of flashbacks and dreams, and one of the wackiest sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time.
Clocking in at an imposing three hours, Aster’s latest takes some really funny and out-there ideas and shakes them all up with a wraparound feeling of danger and chaos. But though Phoenix’s Beau does indeed come off as being very, very afraid, the film that bears his character’s name isn’t nearly as unsettling as Aster’s first two films.
Then again, just as Hereditary and Midsommar didn’t traffic in traditional horror tropes or jump-scares, neither does the often hilarious Beau Is Afraid offer much in the way of belly laughs or sudden snickers. The humor is more about the sight-gag-filled situations that envelope Beau with their surrealness and excess.
Aster also appears to be leaning into his Jewish heritage with this film, which he described in a behind-the-scenes promo clip as being “like a Jewish Lord of the Rings, but he’s just going to his mom’s house.” (In a recent interview on Collider.com, co-star Nathan Lane actually described the movie as” a Jewish Everything Everywhere All at Once.”)
I can go with the Lord of the Rings comparison and, yes, Beau could be considered Frodo-esque, but the beloved Hobbit didn’t exhibit the kind of guilt that courses through the Beau’s veins over the course of his crazed and occasionally supernatural odyssey.
“Guilt? Isn’t that just a huge part of life?, Aster said in a New York Times interview of that familiar feeling known to rise between a Jewish son and his mother. “For me, the film is like a big Jewish comedy, and that’s the first thing to go in the pot.”
The supporting cast, filled with Jews and non-Jews alike, rises to the occasion to bring on the guilt. Aster has smartly filled Beau with a number of idiosyncratic players to bounce off the increasingly unhinged Phoenix. The latter delivers one of his most eccentric performances (which is saying a lot because we’re talking about Joaquin Phoenix, here!). Particularly potent (and peculiar) are sequences featuring Lane, Parker Posey, Amy Ryan, Richard Kind, Zoe Lister-Jones and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Beau Is Afraid does hit some occasionally dry patches while traversing the peaks and valleys of Beau’s overstuffed journey, which begins to grow enervating by the final hour. But there’s always something look at or hold on to over the course of the jaunt, along the hope of a payoff.
And it’s kinda scary. And pretty funny, too.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.