What's happened to Ari Aster?
After his first film, "Hereditary", I was ready to call him a new filmmaker savant. Even though the last 5 minutes of that film was a huge let down, everything that proceeded it was genius.
His second film, "Midsommar" fell off the rails much earlier for me, spiraling into disappointment.
His new, third film, BEAU IS AFRAID is the most self-indulgent, over-stuffed, unduly long film I've seen in a long time.
And for perspective, I just saw "Babylon".
It starts off promisingly.
We witness Beau's birth from his viewpoint in the opening scene and the sound design is intrusively cool. It's an eyebrow raiser.
Then we immediately move forward to the middle-aged, paunchy Beau in the person of Joaquin Phoenix. As you'd expect, he's perfectly cast. Beau has arrived at his psychiatrist's office, anxious to share again that he's leaving today to see his Mother. His doctor, calmly played by Stephen McKinley Henderson (Lady Bird, Lincoln) lets Beau do most of the talking. Beau is a spiraling knot of anxiety, wrapped in zero confidence and the innate inability to make a decision.
After a prescription for a new drug that should never EVER be taken without water (Gremlins came to mind) Beau is off to his apartment, located at the corner of Hell and Terror Central.
A naked crazy man runs around the street stabbing people, a young man dances 24 hours a day in front of a bodega, rotting corpses litter the street. Every square inch of the lobby is covered with violent, profane and sexual graffiti. Beau runs full speed toward the lobby door, fighting for his life.
At this point, Aster had my attention. Where the hell is this place? What time period am I watching? Is there NO law and order? Is this an esoteric entry in "The Purge"?
Beau's apartment building has signs everywhere warning that a deadly brown recluse spider is loose in the building. A neighbor slips notes under Beau's door every hour telling him to TURN DOWN HIS MUSIC!!! but he's not playing any.
He sleeps through his alarm and has to call his Mother to tell her he's running late.
The conversation between them is long, heavy with scary silences and betrays a more complicated relationship than Norman Bates had with his Mommy.
Will Beau make his plane? He takes a pill and realizes he has no water and as he runs to the bodega, a walking dead-like mob immediately takes over his apartment.
After the craziest bath scene in modern film history (bath's seem to be a running fear/motif throughout for Aster) and a call home in which he's told his Mother's head has been crushed by a falling chandelier, Beau runs naked into the street where he's stabbed by the other naked dude and hit by a couple who nearly run him over with their van.
The film goes dark and we move onto the next chapter (35 minutes into the film's three hour running time) where we meet cheery suburban couple Roger and Grace, played to perfection by Nathan Lane (The Birdcage) and Amy Ryan (The Office). They're funny, treating Beau like an adopted kid while he mends "Misery" style in the bedroom of their pissed off teenage daughter (the excellent Kylie Rogers from "Yellowstone"). Hulking in the shadows is Jeeves, a massive and imbalanced fellow soldier to the couple's son. Their son died in combat and a shrine to him fills the living room.
Happy suburbia peels back to reveal something much more sinister at play.
Beau just wants to get to his Mother's funeral. He's managed to let her down one more time in her death.
Soon Beau is running through the surrounding woods to escape yet another disaster. Screen to black and on to another chapter.
He almost immediately falls in with a theatre troupe that lives in the woods. Hailey Squires plays Penelope, a kind, soft spoken and very pregnant young woman who introduces Beau to the theatre commune.
At this point, the film grinds to a crawl, with Penelope narrating an incredibly long passage about Beau's life to date, replete with animated characters, a soft music score and enough detail to put anyone to sleep. The only other person in the theatre with me started snoring loudly halfway through this interminable passage. Who could blame him. It's nonsensical and almost intentionally boring.
My mind started wandering at this point. What am I watching? Is Aster basically just vomiting his internal life monologue on his relationship with his mother, social expectations, wealth, personal responsibility and sex against the page to see what sticks?
Answers confound. I looked at my watch and realized I was only 90 minutes into the 180 minute running time. Is this a movie or an endurance test?
In the middle of a play by the forest thespians, Beau has a family reunion with his children, even though he's never had sex in his life. He's convinced that he'll die if he gets laid. Something to do with often mentioned and sometimes barely glimpsed giant testicles.
I think Aster had huge balls to ask for $35 million to make this movie, but I digress...
Soon there's a lot of gunfire, as if a much more interesting film suddenly invaded the forest like that pirate ship in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life".
Screen goes black and now Beau is finally in a car, getting close to the palatial home of his successful Mother, Mona.
He arrives just as "Steve's Shivas" is taking down all the chairs and food from her service. The home is empty except for an open casket proudly showing off the headless corpse of his Mom.
Beau sits around in the dark, empty house until the unrequited love of his life arrives. Parker Posey is excellent as Elaine, who we last saw in flashbacks from an ill fated cruise.
What happens next and for the last 40 minutes of the film is really inexplicable.
It features the terrific stage actress Patti Lupone in an Oscar worthy performance as Beau's Mother. She's a force. Attic's are climbed into. A giant, Jabba the Hut-like 10 foot tall penis creature manages to snarl and scream, and people die.
But who's dead and who's alive? WTF....
Beau escapes in a rickety motor boat to some sort of gladiator arena for a bizarre judgement trial on his life. Aster made the choice to have the motor boat's outboard engine smoke, sputter and backfire for the entire length of the final scene. Like the rest of the details on Beau's misbegotten quest to nowhere, the motor is a grating and intentional annoyance.
Aster has called his film a '3-hour nightmare comedy".
I do remember laughing about 4 times at the absurdity of Beau and his situation, but this is by no definition a comedy. Aster's on point about the nightmare.
This falls into my category of films that I survived. I didnt watch them.
Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" is an incredibly well made film, but I never want to see it again. I walked out of the theatre feeling like I'd been beaten.
Adam Sandler's terrific drama "Uncut Gems" is a great movie and I felt like I survived the movie, I didn't simply see it. No desire to watch it again.
They should sell t-shirts in the lobby for this that say I SURVIVED BEAU IS AFRAID.
I don't think they'll need to print very many.
It's well acted and beautifully shot as an absurdist nightmare. Some of the core ideas are fascinating. Phoenix is harrowing but one note. Lupone, Lane and Ryan are terrific. The music score by Bobby Krlic is interesting, with haunts of Bernard Herrmann intact.
There's a moment just after the literal climax of Phoenix and Posey's last scene together when I felt for the first time that Beau could feel happiness. It was an interesting moment because I found myself really hoping that he could. Beau's fear is relentless and at some point you just want him to snap out of it and experience some other emotion.
Aster took my hope and beat it death mercilessly and then kept beating it long after it had expired.
Like Damien Chazelle's third film "Babylon", BEAU IS AFRAID is an undisciplined mess from a great filmmaker that I'm just starting to question. Is he as good as I thought he was? I'm fascinated to find out and see what he does next, but I hope he leaves more of his therapy sessions out of the final cut. Along with about an hour of pregnant, self-important pauses and tedious fable building.
BEAU gets a D.