Three features in, I'm not yet convinced that writer/director Ari Aster is a genius. I found Hereditary too overwrought and Midsommar too slowly-paced, though both had their share of disturbing images. Beau Is Afraid – its working title was the catchier if less literal Disappointment Blvd. – is Aster's most assured and imaginative work as a director. As a writer, though, his screenplay takes us on a picaresque, three-hour-long odyssey that ends up a shaggy dog story. It's much ado about nothing.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular character, an endlessly whimpering middle-aged nobody who lives in a hellhole apartment and is daunted by having to fly home to visit his domineering mother (Patti LuPone). This first section of the film feels like Martin Scorsese's After Hours as imagined by Hieronymous Bosch: a drily funny, absurdist nightmare of urban living, where one false move leads to increasingly awful circumstances. And yet it's just the first of four distinct, dreamlike episodes that constitute the movie.
I won't give away much more, as Beau Is Afraid's greatest pleasure lies in having no idea where it's going. Despite its length, it's never boring, and while it lacks the horror tropes of his previous films, it has plenty of its own unsettling moments. It's a stressful and even fleetingly poignant film. But when all is said and done, it's not about the human condition or anything you might expect from such an epic production – it's just a surrealist fable about a lonely loser and his mean mom. Aster's previous features also spun their stories off of familial guilt, so this is obviously a theme that interests him, but the tragedies at the core of Hereditary and Midsommar remain far more jarring than the Freudian gag that propels Beau Is Afraid.