Beatriz at Dinner is a small film with huge scope: A short dinner party takes aim at the Trumpist vision of America.
Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a Mexican massage therapist and holistic healer. Beatriz mostly works with sick patients at the Arendale Cancer Center, but she also makes house visits to healthy clients like Cathy (Connie Britton), an obscenely rich woman who first met Beatriz when the former’s daughter had cancer. Given the history, Cathy considers Beatriz a friend of the family. So when Beatriz’s jalopy won’t start, Cathy invites her to the dinner they’re having with her husband’s boss, coworker, and their wives.
Beatriz, whom Cathy describes as a saint, awkwardly hobnobs through a couple glasses of wine and learns she’s in the presence of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a combination of Donald Trump and our hometown villain, Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion. He’s an unsympathetic mogul who says what he wants, hunts big game for sport, and makes ethically questionable business deals without a second thought. Beatriz, who loves all living creatures dearly and recently found her pet goat strangled in her yard, isn’t having any of it.
There’s no delicateness here. From the young associate (Jay Duplass) who suddenly realizes how rich he’s going to be at the sight of the hosts’ house, to Strutt grilling Beatriz about where she’s really from, every move is a blatant condemnation of conservative America, the 1 percent, and Donald Trump. To say the movie lacks subtlety is not a knock, just an assessment of director Miguel Arteta’s narrow focus and aversion to pussyfooting.
With Beatriz’s premise, writer Mike White (probably best known for movies like Orange County and School of Rock) found the perfect setup to unload criticism on the Right. To that effect, it would have been easy for White to Mary Sue the hell out of Beatriz. But she’s imperfect—and a better character for it. Beatriz and Strutt are simply firm ideological opposites who fate, upon which the two later muse, has seated together at a dinner table. It’s Sartre’s No Exit simplicity, and save for an unsatisfying ending, the movie works because of it. This is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
Of course, White’s track record tells you the movie will be funny, though given the backdrop of our political reality, there’s a bitter aftertaste. Laughs come at the expense of Lithgow’s character, who always seems to be saying or doing something so racist or uncaring that it’s comical—until you’re hit with the sobering realization that essentially this character is the president of the United States. This underlying sense of existential dread pokes its head into a lot of White’s movies with varying degrees, but comes out full frontal here. At times, Beatriz at Dinner is an extremely uncomfortable movie, and White clearly wants us to squirm.
But what’s most interesting about Beatriz at Dinner is the portrayal of its wealthy characters’ seemingly innocuous lives. Sure, Lithgow clearly got a kick out of playing an immoral blowhard and Hayek is equally fantastic as his weird yet righteous evening nemesis, but Arteta and White’s scrutiny of the banal side of 1 percent life shouldn’t be overlooked.
These characters don’t believe they’re the bad guys. They don’t necessarily act out of malevolence. They certainly don’t think themselves evil. And the fact that they’ve benefited from inequity, at the expense of other people, doesn’t cross their minds. That they don’t see it is Beatriz at Dinner’s most salient point.
Beatriz at Dinner
Writer: Mike White
Director: Miguel Arteta
Theater: Uptown Theatre, starts Friday