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Film & TV

‘Beau Is Afraid’ isn’t Jewish ‘Lord of the Rings’ — it’s way worse

Ari Aster’s horror comedy is only Jewish on the most offensive level

Ari Aster is taunting me.

Since his splashy first feature, I’ve been reading closely into his work as an up-and-coming master of horror, watching for signs of Jewish life. 

Were there echoes of Hebrew School in Hereditary? No, it turned out, but there was a witchy twist in the final minutes that didn’t quite add up. 

2019’s Midsommar, with its perennial Swedish sunshine and flaxen-haired pagans, had the makings of a Nordic nightmare well-suited for tsuris. That, too, disappointed, with an unnecessarily horrific prologue tethered to a tale of exceedingly awful grad students. (Surely there’s a way to tell us Florence Pugh’s boyfriend’s a jerk without murdering her entire family in the opening scene.)

All the while, Aster has teased an aloof Yiddishkeit, once attributing the lack of Christian symbols in his oeuvre to his status as “just a neurotic Jewish guy.” But then, last month, he called his latest film, Beau Is Afraid, a “Jewish Lord of the Rings, but he’s just going to his mom’s house.More troublingly, in the next breath, he offered his mission statement: “I want to put you in the experience of being a loser.”

So essentially, Aster, whose horror comedy is an indulgent 2 hours and 59 minutes, like he’s Price Is Right-ing a runtime, arrived with the proposition “what if Sophie Portnoy was Sauron?” And, without outright saying it, he implied that to be Jewish is to be a loser. All of this is begging for analysis better suited to Aster’s therapist than a critic, but let’s play ball.

In the analogy, man-child Beau Wassermann (poor Joaquin Phoenix) is Frodo, except instead of an idyllic shire, he lives in what feels like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s image of New York City, replete with body-modded menaces, junkies, death-defying sex workers, gleeful eye-gougers, neglected corpses, brown recluse spiders and a prolific naked knifeman called “the Birthday Boy Stab Man.”

Is this Jewish? Perhaps it speaks to a certain urban Jewish anxiety. But then, the locale’s imagery has a certain Christian gestalt, with a glowering mural scrawled “Jesus Sees Your Abominations,” graffiti urging us to “Hail Satan, Shoot Dope, Kill Children, F– the Pope,” a Marian figurine of mother and child and even a stigmatic assault by the aforementioned naked knife dude.

Yet, Beau’s call to adventure would seem to be Jewish. His mom, Mona (Patti LuPone in the present, Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks, sometimes screeching in the voice of seagulls), wants him home for his father’s Yahrzeit — except it’s never called that, only the “anniversary” of his death. Naturally, a number of stumbling blocks arise, not least that famous flaw of Hamlet’s: indecisiveness. Beau’s diffident mantra is “thank you — I’m so sorry.”

Urgency is added to Beau’s homecoming by an accidental death and the need to bury the body quickly, but therein a Jewish ethos ends. (I mean, the funeral has an open casket.)

I suppose I could drash on certain parallels to Kafka. I could go on about how Beau’s distended testicles recall a long tradition of below-the-belt character traits, from Nathan Zuckerman’s missing prostate, Mickey Sabbath’s anthropomorphic penis or Howard Ratner’s celestial colon. I could get into the suburban, goyish scenery of Beau’s stay with a kindly, pill-popping family — Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, who have monogrammed mugs and a shrine to their dead son who served in the 82nd Airborne — the gentile elves to his hirsute hobbit convalescing in Rivendell. 

I could even find some flood parable or Tower of Babel mumbo-jumbo in Beau’s discursive visit with a traveling theater troupe in the woods, which, returning to Hamlet, functions as a more thematically irrelevant mousetrap, staged in Michel Gondry style. 

I’m not going to, though, because to buy into Aster’s Semitic Tolkien pitch is to lend the film a coherence that simply isn’t there. Jewish Lord of the Rings? Fine. But why not also Pentecostal Star Wars? A case could be made, I’m sure.

After Beau leaves his abject apartment behind, in a great, visually inventive sequence that feels like Jacques Tati meets Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of hell, we are off on tangent after tangent until we arrive at the crux of Beau’s priapic, Oedipal trauma: the Mordor of his Mama. Here I came to understand what Aster was driving at. To accept this film as Jewish is to buy into the most strained tropes about overbearing Jewish mothers, taken to an extreme that would make Philip Roth blush. Without giving too much away, Mona is revealed to have carefully orchestrated Beau’s troubles in a fashion that will satisfy Freudians and incels alike, suspending his sexual development with a lie about his origins. 

It’s a monster movie that takes as a given a Jewish monopoly on a possessive and guilt-fueled brand of mother-henning that outdoes Medea, Livia Soprano and, in the shocking details of Beau’s conception, Jenny Fields from The World According to Garp.

But what I can’t get over is that it didn’t have to be that way. Beyond an odd sight gag and the surname Wassermann (note the uncommon double n) there’s almost nothing here to suggest a Jewish story apart from Aster’s own public comments. If the film, as bloated as our hero’s scrotum, is any indication, the director doesn’t know when it’s better to say more with less.

But Beau did this much good: It made me want to call my mother. If Aster wants to follow my lead, he gave himself the perfect line: “Thank you — I’m so sorry.”

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