After crafting a demonic family disaster and a bonkers Swedish getaway, writer/director Ari Aster has concocted the mother of all guilt trips.
Not much is clear about his new dark comedy “Beau Is Afraid” (★★★ out of four; rated R; now showing in New York and Los Angeles, in theaters nationwide Friday), seemingly by design, but Aster has traded his horror shows “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” for an oddly relatable and proudly deranged adventure about a middle-aged man (Joaquin Phoenix in go-for-broke mode) and his quest to return home. That part, if nothing else about this bizarre hero’s journey, makes sense. It’s everything else over the course of three hours – beginning with, yes, the discombobulating experience of childbirth – that challenges the imagination and one’s capacity for cinematic weirdness.
Don’t be afraid to give “Beau” a chance though because there are some meaty matters at play with a smattering of absurd hilarity.
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Phoenix’s anxiety-ridden title character lives in the worst part of town, where nude dudes run around with knives, corpses fester in the streets and brown recluse spiders are on the warpath. Beau is supposed to fly home to see his mom Mona (played at different ages by Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones) for the anniversary of his dad’s death, but he oversleeps, his keys are inexplicably stolen and he reluctantly makes the call that he’s been delayed. Mom’s disappointed, and it isn’t the first time.
A continuing series of unfortunate events then befalls Beau, starting the next day with the news that his mother has been crushed to death by a falling chandelier. Emotional and desperate (and naked in the street after having a relaxing bath fouled up by an intruder), he’s hit by a truck and taken in by a suspiciously kind suburban couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan). From there, the movie plays out like a nightmarish Homeric odyssey, where our sad-sack Odysseus’ epic journey back to bury his mom includes a childhood crush (Parker Posey), a traveling theater troupe, a paint-drinking teen girl, a maniacal soldier, an animated fantasy detour and an all-time Mariah Carey needle drop.
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Oh, and Beau is told he has a hereditary condition, like his father, that will kill him the moment he has an orgasm. So he’s also got that going for him.
With flashbacks to a young Beau (Armen Nahapetian) and fuzzy old memories that slowly come into focus, Aster builds layers of surreality into “Beau Is Afraid,” enough to make you (and Beau) wonder if any of it’s real. Phoenix delivers an exceptional physical performance, with his face doing the job much of the time to convey Beau’s litany of fears and states of grief, horror and everything in between. And Aster has built an interesting supporting cast around him, including a stellar bit from LuPone. (She’s a legend without an Oscar nomination. Is it too early to start manifesting one?)
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Aster insightfully deconstructs the family unit (one of his “Hereditary” themes) and examines our relationships with parents. “Beau Is Afraid” also keeps its audience guessing and scratching their heads – one memorable scene in an attic is guaranteed to break brains and/or cause a laughing fit. It’s a more demanding narrative to navigate than the director’s previous efforts, and not all of it works with its sly subtlety. Yet there’s sensational artistry at work, with Aster peppering much of his storytelling in the background of scenes (photos on walls, informative signs, etc.) that a lot of folks might not even notice.
Brave souls might be tempted to a return visit. And whether you love or hate it – because this is not a movie for middling reactions – “Beau” acts as one heck of a reminder to text or call your mom.
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