Beau Is Afraid Is a Referendum on Director Ari Aster, Cinema’s Latest Wunderkind

Critics adore artsy auteur filmmaker Ari Aster, director of hits like Midsommar and Hereditary — they’re even willing to pretend his new surrealist comedy Beau Is Afraid is hilarious. It’s not.

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid. (A24)

How much you like Beau is Afraid might depend on your tolerance for representations of abjection. That is, watching Joaquin Phoenix as Beau breaking down psychologically over what appears to be the violent chaos of society, plus the death of his loathsome mother (Patti LuPone). Beau is almost always shown cowering, cringing, screaming, vomiting, enduring every kind of sad and screechy mortification, and fleeing from surreal dangers that might be real or all in his mind or in some ambiguous area between the two. There are perhaps twenty minutes total, sprinkled through the latter half of the film, when Beau expresses something else — rage, ecstasy, anything — but the rest of the three hours is Beau abased by his fears.

There’s an implied capitalist critique in the eventual revelation that Beau’s mother, Mona Wasserman, was a business tycoon who made her miserable, lonely son the focal point of all the MW Corporation products generated and sold, with his photos at the center of the ad campaign. This critique seems tangentially reminiscent of Orson Welles’s take on his own film Citizen Kane as being a character study of a boy whose “parents were a bank.”

But whereas every phase of Charles Foster Kane’s development seems to add layers of complexity to his character, the portrayal of Beau Wasserman’s mass of neurotic fears never grows more complex or insightful. There’s an irony in the way MW products tend to emphasize safety, given that Beau never feels safe. But beyond that, Beau’s weeping and keening and running away become tiresome early on.

The film is supposed to be a comedy, according to director Ari Aster, just so you know. That’s a popular move being made lately. Insufferable dramas that test all your endurance to sit through are actually marvelous comedies — if only you’re highbrow enough to get the jokes. I’ve read that Tar is a hilarious “blast” for the cognoscenti, too. Paul Thomas Anderson said so.

Aster’s sense of trauma-comedy is realized in things like descriptions of Beau’s mother’s gruesome death caused by a chandelier dropping on her head, and her headless body being displayed in an open casket at her funeral in an otherwise traditional way, in a prim dress with hands peacefully folded on her chest. Beau’s father is represented as a gigantic penis locked in his mother’s attic, which one critic has called “Jabba the Nuts.” Beau falls down the ladder to get away from it, shrieking all the way. Yeah, hilarious stuff.

My own tolerance for this kind of thing is minimal. I was the only one in the screening room watching the latest Aster opus. Other people, ordinary filmgoers who don’t have to watch three-hour art films of epic repulsiveness know better than to blow their hard-earned leisure time on a silly monstrosity like Beau is Afraid.

Though the film is, apparently, doing solid business due to Aster’s “committed fan base.” There are a lot of obsessed Aster enthusiasts out there, it seems.

Martin Scorsese is one of them, which hurts me in a tender spot. Scorsese at his best is such an inspired filmmaker, a real natural, whereas Aster strains so hard for results nowhere near as good. I hate the way they’re practically doing public appearances together as a mutual admiration society.

It’s been distressing to discover that Aster, this much-admired new auteur, gets interviewed a lot about his influences, and reveals that he himself admires Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, all great directors I love. (Of course, Aster also loves Air Force One, so it’s not clear how seriously we have to take any of his favorites.)

Aster’s whole sensibility is foreign to mine. I watch his stuff unmoved, or worse — embarrassed, snorting, laughing in derision, and eventually numbed by scorn. Hereditary (2018) is one of the most ludicrous films I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’m a huge fan of horror films about hauntings. Midsommar (2019) is a better film, if only because the folk horror tradition saves him — all Aster has to do is not mess up a very effective and straightforward narrative formula involving the persistence of scary ancient cultures in apparently idyllic rural settings. Aster has a talent for production design, and in Midsommar, he creates a nicely flowery, sunny, yellow-and-white paradise of seemingly quaint rural Swedish society, which is actually an old-world cult practicing ritual sacrifice — but then again, we know that going in. So it works pretty well, though it’s way overlong and endlessly underscores the same limited experience of emotional trauma the way Aster always does.

Still from Beau Is Afraid. (A24)

He admits it. Aster interviewed on the Criterion Channel on his tendency to dwell on trauma in his films: “You take whatever is troubling you, and you, like, infect the audience with it. You kind of take your sickness and put it into them.”

Remarks like this lead to much speculation after you make a movie like Beau is Afraid. Though Aster isn’t telling, and we can assume his “full intentions are known only to him — and perhaps his mother and therapist.”

“I made something for an audience and I hope that it is exciting and fun and makes people feel things,” Aster said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “I just cannot speak to what those things are, and shouldn’t.”

Gah! This fancy, frivolous love of sickness is such a preoccupation of the healthy. If you’ve always done fine in life, you can afford to wallow excitedly in the sick and the crazy and the abject. It’s the people who have never lived in any real state of hardship or chaos — weren’t raised in circumstances defined by mental illness, say, or alcoholism, or abuse, or mayhem of any kind — who want to make a film like Beau is Afraid. I hate these people. Trauma tourists, every one of them.

At least when the Coens do unraveling psychology from their own manifestly mentally healthy standpoint, they know to call it out, as in Barton Fink, when that creatively blocked chronicler of the suffering of the working man is denounced by an actually suffering working man, who says wearily, “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter.”

There are a lot of talented actors in Beau is Afraid lending the whole thing more dignity than it deserves. Besides Phoenix and LuPone there are Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane as Beau’s temporary caretakers, who are suspiciously like some kind of affluent sitcom parents full of strangely infinite solicitude — and you know that can’t end well. Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Beau’s therapist with his usual remarkable skill, and Parker Posey turns up late in the film to inject a little energy into the role of a grown-up version of Beau’s childhood love, Elaine.

But the adoring critics are making the film sound far livelier than it actually plays. Watching Beau Is Afraid feels more like having the filmmaker himself sitting next to you, endlessly nudging you to make note of the thirty-seven tiresome production design curlicues he’s inserted into every single scene.

Judging by reactions so far, this film is turning into a real referendum on filmmaker Ari Aster, driving cinephiles to declare themselves for or against. Which side are you on?