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Horror-comedy 'Beau Is Afraid' is a passion project gone astray

Having made a name for himself with the A24-released horror pictures "Hereditary" and "Midsommar," the writer-director Ari Aster has a new movie in theaters. It's called "Beau Is Afraid." And it tells the darkly comic story of a man named Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who's just trying to get home to visit his mother.

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Other segments from the episode on April 21, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 21, 2023: Interview with Anne Perry; Review of Return to Casual; Interview with Michael Denneny; Review of Beau is Afraid

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Having made a name for himself with the A24-released horror pictures "Hereditary" and "Midsommar," the writer-director Ari Aster has a new movie in theaters. It's called "Beau Is Afraid." And it tells the darkly comic story of a man named Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who's just trying to get home to visit his mother. The movie also features performances by Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan and Patti LuPone. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The 36-year-old writer-director Ari Aster makes deliberately paced, exquisitely crafted chillers about guilt, repression and super-messed-up family dynamics. I've been an admirer of his ever since getting scared out of my wits five years ago by "Hereditary," with its mashup of demonic possession and domestic turmoil. Less scary but no less gripping was his nightmarish travelogue "Midsommar," about a relationship that rots under the Scandinavian sun. Now, after sitting through Aster's latest, the three-hour horror-comedy fantasia "Beau Is Afraid," my admiration hasn't dimmed, exactly. It's the kind of freakish jumble only a gifted filmmaker could make. And I'm grateful that a company as adventurous as A24 is willing to give an ambitious director carte blanche to make the unhinged passion project of his dreams. But "Beau Is Afraid" still strikes me as an audacious misfire. Aster is still flicking at his character's raw nerves, to say nothing of ours. But for the first time, he seems to be doing it more for effect than anything else.

Beau Wassermann, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a middle-aged sad sack who, true to the title, is afraid of a lot of things. He's afraid of getting sick and dying. He's afraid of the side effects of the medication prescribed by his therapist. He's afraid to have sex, convinced that it'll kill him. He's afraid to set foot outside his shabby apartment, which is understandable since he lives in an anonymous urban hellscape full of zombie movie vibes. Most of all, though, Beau is afraid of his mother, whom he's planning to visit for the first time in ages. But on the day of his intended departure, a bizarre sequence of events causes him to miss his flight. And he calls his mom to explain the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEAU IS AFRAID")

PATTI LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Beau?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Hi, Mom.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Hi, Carrot. Are you at the airport?

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) No, not yet.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Are you on your way? Are you in the cab?

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wasserman) No, Mom.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) How long is the cab ride?

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Mom, I don't want to worry you. I'm still on my way, but something - I don't know. I was up all night because my neighbor kept leaving notes underneath my door about noise even though I didn't make any noise. And I overslept. And when I went to leave, I forgot something and went back in. And then I came back out, and my key was stolen out of my door.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Oh, my God. So where are you calling me from now?

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) My apartment.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Wait. What time is it? Isn't it 4:30?

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Yeah, I know.

LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Baby, your flight is in an hour.

PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) I know, but, Mom, my key got stolen out of my door. Mom? Mom?

CHANG: That's the great Patti LuPone as Beau's mom, which lets you know that when we finally meet her in the flesh, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with. But first, Beau must embark on a long, protracted odyssey that falls into four distinct chapters, each one weirder than the last. In the first and most suspenseful chapter, Beau tries to leave his apartment, is attacked by a naked serial killer, and ultimately gets hit by a car. The second chapter finds him recuperating in the home of a suburban couple - they're played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan - who are friendly enough at first, though they seem determined to keep him from leaving. The third and most beguiling chapter finds Beau lost in a mysterious forest where he stumbles on a wandering theater troupe.

The show they put on for him - Aster makes use of some strikingly beautiful animation here - offers a poignant glimpse of an alternate life path for Beau, one where he's able to find true love and raise a family. But in some ways, this is the cruellest episode of all, since Aster dangles the possibility of happiness mainly so that he can yank it away. The fourth chapter finds Beau returning to his childhood home, where all manner of terrible memories and ugly secrets are waiting for him. Aster gives all this surreal mayhem a fever-dream intensity. And as always, he leaves us uncertain about whether we should laugh or recoil.

There are countless references to earlier movies, including Hitchcock's monstrous-mother classic, "Psycho," and Charlie Kaufman's depressive meta comedy "Synecdoche, New York." Aster also brings in terrific actors like Parker Posey and Richard Kind in crucial supporting roles. But what it all adds up to in the end is not a whole lot. A bludgeoning Freudian nightmare in which a gibbering manchild does battle with his domineering mom and his feelings of shame, anxiety and self-loathing. It's not clear whether Aster is parodying or just regurgitating these overworked tropes or maybe a little of both. It doesn't really matter. After a while, "Beau Is Afraid" becomes so thuddingly repetitive that it doesn't feel scary or revelatory. It feels like drudgery.

Joaquin Phoenix is so good at playing damaged souls that he almost feels like too obvious a casting choice. There isn't much to Beau as a character, beneath all his panicky shrieks and strained grimaces. It's easy to feel for him the way you would feel for anyone you've seen get attacked, tortured, threatened, knocked unconscious and terrorized for three hours. But he's a blank - one that Aster, for all his formidable skill, hasn't been able to fill in.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Beau Is Afraid."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET'S "ASSANHADO")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, writer Judy Blume. In the 1970s, her novels for young people were best sellers - books like "Forever..." and "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." But they soon were banned because of their depictions of puberty and sexuality. Blume is the subject of a new documentary, and her novel "Are You There God?" has been adapted into a new film. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET'S "ASSANHADO")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET'S "ASSANHADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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