‘Beau Is Afraid’ is a bore, I’m afraid

Joaquin Phoenix overacts his way through an ugly, heavy-handed epic from ‘Midsommar’ director Ari Aster.

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The hero of “Beau Is Afraid” (Joaquin Phoenix) encounters some horrors on the way to his mother’s funeral.

A24

Ari Aster’s monstrously long, grotesquely self-indulgent and psychologically heavy-handed “Beau Is Afraid” is the kind of polarizing epic that will surely wind up on some critics’ list of the Best Movies of 2023, while others will count it among the insufferable films of the year.

I’ll take a seat in the latter section, thank you.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 59 minutes, practically daring you to look away from the ugliness onscreen at times and featuring Joaquin Phoenix in “Watch THIS, Nicolas Cage!” overacting mode, “Beau is Afraid” is a deep slog through a hallucinogenic Oedipal journey that never misses an opportunity to hit us over the head with obvious metaphors. On the heels of his brilliant one-two punch of “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” writer-director Aster stumbles badly in an impressively staged and photographed film that has flashes of stunning originality but for the most part careens madly between dark comedy and surrealistic horror, badly missing the mark in both genres. It’s funny here and there, but it’s never scary, and it ultimately commits the sin of becoming a well-made bore.

‘Beau Is Afraid’

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A24 presents a film written and directed by Ari Aster. Rated R (for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language). Running time: 179 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

After a murky birth scene announcing the arrival of one Beau Wasserman, we flash forward nearly 50 years and find Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) living a hellish existence as a middle-aged sad-sack barely surviving in a dystopian urban landscape where the drug addicts, hustlers, killers and deranged lunatics roaming the streets are one click away from turning into full-out zombies. After an alarming incident in Beau’s dingy apartment, which has already been commandeered and destroyed by the local mob, Beau races naked into the streets, is attacked by an also-naked man dubbed “Birthday Boy Stab Man” by the local news and is hit by car. What a day.

That vehicle was piloted by a wealthy and seemingly kindly suburban couple Roger and Grace (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, both chillingly good), who nurse Beau back to health in their idyllic and isolated home so he can make the odyssey, or should we say The Odyssey, back home for the funeral of his mother, who was decapitated by a falling chandelier. This interlude turns into something out of “The Twilight Zone” mixed with a certain Coen Brothers movie, and Beau eventually finds himself deep in the forest and connecting with an irritatingly zoned-out hippie theater troupe called Orphans of the Forest, eesh.

By this time, the Mommy Issues theme has played out again and again, e.g., the woman in the theater troupe who rescues Beau is pregnant; Beau carries around a Madonna-and-child figurine that has been broken and glued together, and we get clanky flashback sequences featuring Zoe Lister-Jones as Beau’s overbearing and abusive mother.

When Beau finally makes it back home, he reconnects with the love of his life (Parker Posey) for some weird sex, and is then tortured from beyond the grave by his mother, now played by Patti LuPone, who chews the scenery with such raw verve they should have lodged a napkin under her chin. We’re treated to some climactic sequences involving a Jabba the Hutt-like penis creature (don’t ask), and a trial that feels like a dark sendoff of “Defending Your Life,” and at this juncture, the viewer is afraid that “Beau Is Afraid” will never end.

Ari Aster is a wildly talented filmmaker who surely has much great work ahead of him. Maybe he just had to get this poison out of his system before he returns to excellence.

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