Beau is Afraid review: Joaquin Phoenix can’t save this 3-hour nightmare

“I heard you sighing,” said a fellow critic with a laugh outside of the theater where we saw Beau is Afraid. I assure you, that’s unlike me, but he was right — during most of the three-hour runtime of Beau is Afraid, I was sighing to myself and just waiting for the pain to end. Before we jump on Martin Scorsese for his three-plus-hour runtimes before seeing them, let’s first see the thing because I’d rather watch The Irishman five times over consecutively than experience Beau is Afraid once more.

Beau is Afraid review

A still from Beau is Afraid courtesy of A24.

Beau Wasssermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is the son of a successful businesswoman, Mona (Patti LuPone plays the older version while Zoe Lister-Jones plays a younger version of the character). He lives a very safe life of going to therapy (the therapist is played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and sitting in his apartment. He has been taught to fear the world, and even crossing the street is a mission for him. To be fair, it looks like those scenes in high school movies where the hallways are infested and run by jocks except here there are nude men with knives.

After failing to make his flight to visit her, Beau soon learns his mother has died, leaving him in shock. He has to go to the funeral — especially given that his mother stipulated that she would not be buried until he delivered a eulogy  — but constant roadblocks get in his way as he attempts to make the trek.

To preface, let it be known that I believe that Ari Aster is a really great filmmaker. We need original voices and his films are about as original as you can get, and it’s cool to see someone get a budget and just run wild. However, Beau is Afraid is like giving a child free rein to draw on the wall with the sense of humor of a pre-teen. While occasionally funny, this film beats you over the head with its message and seems to be desperately begging to be deemed “high-brow” with its pacing and thematic elements, but if this is “high-brow entertainment,” leave me out of it.

While I have complained about runtimes — Renfield did feel longer than a 90-minute film — Beau is Afraid genuinely felt like it was six hours long. And not only that, but it’s like being tied down and being forced to watch like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Every hour felt like three, and I didn’t even check my watch until 40 minutes remained. Remember how in The Green Knight, once Dev Patel meets the titular knight, there’s a 15-20-minute sequence that shows him his future? It’s so hypnotic that you nearly forget that he’s still standing there. In Beau is Afraid, a similar thing happens, leading to the film’s best visuals (the animated-live-action hybrid) but also a sequence that feels like an hour. It’s only made worse once you realize the film has a long way to go after.

And I can admit that Beau is Afraid is occasionally funny and made me chuckle. There’s an intruder sequence that’s quite funny, the extent of the horrors outside of Beau’s apartment is so ridiculous you can’t help but grin, and Nathan Lane as Roger, a surgeon taking care of Beau, is great as a quasi-Michael Scott (Amy Ryan ironically plays his wife Grace). Aster has always found a way to make his films funny despite very grim situations, and that continues in his third feature. Sometimes the humor is simply uncomfortable like Kylie Rogers’ character (the daughter of Roger and Grace) screaming at Beau to drink paint with her as her gradual breakdown reaches its crescendo — to be clear, watching Beau is Afraid is more like watching paint dry than drinking it.

But other than a few laughs, Beau is Afraid will make you cry that you’re still sitting there as these minutes of your life that you’ll never get back continue to pass. While Hereditary and Midsommar have their moments of strange occurrences, Aster’s latest takes the cake in terms of weirdness. Never have I ever seen a film so audacious and unapologetic about how weird it is. Imagine the opening of Jackass Forever and combining it with Starro from The Suicide Squad.

A still from Beau is Afraid courtesy of A24.

The theme of an overbearing mother and the guilt that comes with one is not new to film, and Beau is Afraid is certainly unafraid to convey their message. From a young age, Beau has an odd relationship with his mother. His father died before he was born, and it’s evident that his mother is his meal ticket into the present day. But he feels coldness from her which he conveys to his therapist. The theme goes a bit far by the end, which won’t be spoiled here, but even by that point, the film was long past its expiration date.

And maybe due to Aster’s Jewish background and speaking with fellow critics who have a similar background, the film resonates further. I still think that in Christian households, you can have similar circumstances and just as much guilt thrown on you — just see Scorsese’s movies — but perhaps there’s a deeper chord that struck for some. I don’t know, it often feels like an artsy painting at the MoMA that’s just a bunch of lines on a canvas. Sure, there’s artistic value in its aesthetic, but sometimes lines are just lines.

Martin Scorsese loves Aster — perhaps because they similarly explore the theme of guilt throughout their films — but there’s a difference between a three-plus-hour Scorsese film and Aster’s three-hour clunker. For one, Scorsese’s long runtimes have a purpose. Take The Irishman (his longest feature), for example. The film spans Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro)’s life, and that three-and-a-half-hour runtime accomplishes telling the scope of his story without meandering.

Beau is Afraid, on the other hand, feels like it’s long to be long. In 2023, it feels like any director demands this as a condition in their contracts, but this film did not need to be that long. Or, at the very least, the film could’ve been more concise with what it shows. Each side quest feels like enough to make a full feature out of — in all honesty, a feature about Grace and Roger would’ve made for a better film — however, the most interesting aspect of the film is the upbringing of Beau. We get glimpses of it, generally no longer than a vignette, but the times that the film spends extended periods of time in it with Armen Nahapetian as teenage Beau is a lot more engaging than the rest. As my one critic friend says, “Such good food, such little portions.”

Sure Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors ever, but his performance in Beau is Afraid does not save it. It’s a shame, as his performance in C’mon C’mon was a nice refresher after his performance in Joker. His performance as Beau harkens back to the latter, and not for the better. It feels too close to what he has done before, and no amount of blank staring and mumbling with a child-like innocence can change that.

A still from Beau is Afraid courtesy of A24.

Should you see Beau is Afraid? 

I’m unafraid to say this: no, you shouldn’t. While ambitious, Beau is Afraid is exactly what happens when you give a mouse a cookie, and Ari Aster gets in his own way with this self-indulgent three-hour film. I won’t go as far as saying it’s a “career-killer,” as I do genuinely think original ideas need to be made, but Beau is Afraid is simply style over substance.

At one point in the film, someone (perhaps Ryan’s character) tells Beau to just “wake up” from his nightmare. If only it were that easy.

Grade: D-

Beau is Afraid is playing in select theaters now and will be released nationwide on April 21.

The post Beau is Afraid review: Joaquin Phoenix can’t save this 3-hour nightmare appeared first on ClutchPoints.

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