*** out of ****
(for strong language and a scene of violence)
Released: June 9, 2017 limited; June 23 expands
Runtime: 83 minutes
Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky
A movie about people talking that will get people talking, Beatriz at Dinner comes from the patron saint screenwriter of strong female roles.
Mike White’s most popular scripts have been for the Jack Black vehicles School of Rock and Nacho Libre, but his best work has been in the empathetic character portraits of women in existential crisis: The Good Girl (Jennifer Aniston) and the HBO series Enlightened (Laura Dern). Each one, truth be told, has been a proxy for White’s own melancholic disconnect with the world. Now there’s Beatriz at Dinner, which gives Salma Hayek her richest showcase since Frida fifteen years ago.
The film itself, which also boasts strong ensemble work (from John Lithgow especially), is a mesmerizing if biased Trump era critique, using an Hispanic outsider to indict rich white capitalists and the privilege they flaunt.
Its ideas are more personal than rigorous, emerging from feelings rather than reflections, which results in a final act that doesn’t know how to resolve itself. Beatriz at Dinner exists primarily, it seems, for White to vent his sociopolitical frustrations, not stir intellectual debate. Nevertheless, it remains emotionally provocative.
Beatriz is a health therapist for soul, mind & body, whose job allows her to be in the periphery of the One Percent but never of it. A very simple, earthy woman (Hayek is dramatically glammed-down) that practices Buddhism with Catholic leftovers, Beatriz lives by herself with her goats, to which she’s deeply attached.
Beatriz’s car breaks down at the house of a wealthy client, named Cathy (Connie Britton), who adores Beatriz. Cathy invites Beatriz (who’s troubled by a recent loss) to the dinner she’s hosting; guests include Doug Strutt (Lithgow), a brash real estate developer…and Trump archetype.
So there’s your premise: Shy New Agey Hispanic Vegan Eastern Mystic gets dropped into the middle of gregarious high society Caucasians whose preoccupations are more material than spiritual. Awkward conversation ensues, and it’s fascinating for us, as an audience, to be a bug on that wall.
They talk about a wide variety of things, from business to politics to world travel, and it’s clear that White has been an observant participant in these circles before. He knows these people. A prime example is when Strutt dissects, in shrewd detail, how he’s able to develop property even in the face of progressive protestors and likely lawsuits. He doesn’t game the legal system because he doesn’t need to; he simply knows how to play it to his advantage.
Whether it’s this, or immigration, or hunting, or any number of other topics, Beatriz is, despite being calm and centered by nature, a hippie liberal who can’t stay quiet in the face of what she finds offensive, regardless if etiquette would suggest otherwise (and it does, as Beatriz is the outlier who’s been invited in).
Watching her speak frankly adds to the intrigue, with her ire increasing as its met with dismissive contempt, delivered in a patronizing guise of geniality. The cast plays these conversations with fresh, electric interplay, and an overlapping spontaneity that’s reminiscent of Robert Altman ensembles.
A more magnanimous movie would’ve found the humanity in both sides, but White’s disdain is too raw for such generosity. Even so, the elites here are fully formed, articulate people, not simplistic parodies, and Lithgow’s Trump stand-in is much more erudite and sophisticated than our 45th President.
To the extent these people are genuinely interested in hearing Beatriz share her perspectives, it comes from a curiosity that actually exposes unconscious bigotry. The best that can be said of these people is how sincerely clueless they are to their own sense of entitlement.
Tension builds and crescendos until it’s capped by a shocking contrivance that I won’t spoil, but it’s one that liberals will see as cathartic wish fulfillment. Though it may serve as a release for pent-up progressive rage, it doesn’t do the movie or the Beatriz character any favors, particularly in our current toxic political climate. Moreover, White and Arteta end up not having the guts to play this incendiary turn to a legitimate conclusion, and finally pull the punch.
Even so, the moment is so jarring that, if the film were more widespread in the public consciousness, Beatriz at Dinner would be easy fodder for conservative pundits. Coming off the heels of a horrific shooting targeted at Republican Congressmen (as well as infamous news items such as Kathy Griffin’s decapitated Trump head photo and the Trump-as-Caesar “Shakespeare in the Park” stabbing), the anger-fueled moment of seething liberal hatred that White contrives for Beatriz (and no doubt feels himself) only serves to solidify the caricature of the unhinged Democrat.
Then, to cement the fact that White and Arteta’s goal is to merely roleplay their outrage rather than actually say something, the story abruptly ends on a cryptic cop out. At 75 minutes, Beatriz at Dinner is a movie that’s unfinished. Ideas are left on the table, unsaid or unexamined, not out of laziness but simply a lack of desire to dig deeper. White and Arteta don’t want to challenge the audience or even their own biases; they just want to unload.
What could’ve been a Thinking Person’s movie ends up simply being an angry, pissed off one, leaving us with a mostly invigorating piece of cinematic theatre that ultimately sells itself, its concerns, and us short.