Beatriz at Dinner (2017) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and a scene of violence
Running Time: 82 min.
Cast: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Landecker, John Early
Director: Miguel Arteta
Screenplay: Mike White
Review published June 26, 2017
Beatriz at Dinner is a ripe modern satire that benefits from being one of the first such films in the Trump era, though written and largely filmed prior to his inauguration. The main gist of the film is that Beatriz (Hayek, Sausage Party), a Mexican immigrant who works as a massage therapist/healer with a primary emphasis on helping cancer patients at a holistic cancer therapy center in Sothern California, ends up stuck with a broken-down car awaiting repair while at the seaside Newport Beach mansion of a couple of rich clients, Cathy (Britton, American Ultra) and Grant (Warshofsky, Wilson). The family welcomes Beatriz,for whom she has helped their ailing daughter, who is now away at college, back to health. She ends up getting invited to stay for dinner, though it is during a particularly important dinner party between the couple, another couple who are celebrating a wildly successful and lucrative real-estate deal, and Doug Strutt (Lithgow, Miss Sloane), the ultra rich and famous real-estate mogul (Strutt brings his third trophy wife in tow) who they are all feeding off.
Beatriz at Dinner is another adept squirm-inducing comedy in 2017 dealing with race and class, following in the footsteps of Jordan Peele's Get Out, though this plays as much more grounded and serious much of the time. Utilizing its contemplative but powerful score, Arteta is able to draw forth the emotional foreboding of the tension Beatriz begins to feel take hold of her. The film is written by Mike White (Nacho Libre) and directed by Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible...), who have collaborated on other notable uncomfortable comedies such as The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck.
But, they've mostly pursued separate projects separately since their last cinematic union 15 years ago, and in the interim have each developed a separate style and much more film experience. White's original screenplay, set primarily on one day in one setting, feels like an adaptation of a stage play, though spelled by key flashbacks to help explain Beatriz's backstory and current emotional state of mind that sets off the turn of events in the present as she mingles among the wealthy and unconcerned. While it might have worked in theatre, what we'd lack from a distance are the subtleties of the fine-tuned performances, which are excellent across the board.
It's a resurgent performance as the spiritually and emotionally sensitive Beatriz from Salma Hayek, her best in several years, playing someone decidedly non-sexy or interested in looking glamorous. We learn that Beatriz is already emotionally distraught from the callous strangulation of her pet goat from a neighbor who did not like its persistent bleating, Her character also carries with her the severe scars from a childhood destroyed by a hotel development that destroyed her idyllic home town in Mexico, as well as the lives of those displaced people who were steamrolled for the deal to go through. Beatriz thinks that Strutt could be the man responsible for that pain, but she is not so sure yet and wants to know more. The problem is that the wine is starting to go to her head, so whatever tenuous grasp she already had on her blurting out her gut emotional responses to what Strutt and company are bragging about, it's all but completely gone as the dinner gets underway.
The cast in support is also remarkable, with Lithgow exuding the kind of disaffected sleaze where he shrugs off such things as the heartbreak that occurs when the needs of the poor and powerless are disregarded in favor of those who have the wealth and wherewithal to push forward their agendas regardless of what rules or regulations that might be in place to protect the environment or human rights. And yet, there is charisma to his character, and a little bit of self deprecation that knowing he will always have the upper hand, no matter what people may say, which instills confidence underneath the facade of reason.
Britton and Warshofsky are assured as the outwardly warm and welcoming couple who are grateful for Beatriz's help in their daughter's healing, but also becoming increasingly aware that their wealth comes with certain strings attached in order to maintain their lifestyle, and that includes having to play nice with others who might be of benefit in terms of influence down the road. Duplass (Paper Towns) is effective as a young sleaze getting his first taste of success, letting it go directly to his head. Sevigny (Love and Friendship) and Landecker (Doctor Strange) are also quite good as the wives who tolerate their respective husbands' antics for the good of keeping their own standard of living high enough to feel like a life of great privilege is afforded them.
Although the film is billed as a comedy, the laughs that are there can be uncomfortable, and there's no laughing matter in regards to Beatriz and her journey to be found. In fact, most of the laughs come from the jocularity among the wealthy and privileged in how they've gamed the system, which, given the collateral damage of their reach for money and prestige, is no laughing matter at all. It's a class warfare in which one side has all of the arsenal necessary to decimate the other side, but for the laws that might bind them into playing things straight for fear their fortunes aren't compromised by heavy lawsuits should they overreach their bounds too much.
On Beatriz's side, her feeling could be that fate has brought her together in proximity to a man like Strutt, someone she would otherwise have no connection to except as a victim of his business decisions, and that the time to strike against all that have held back so many is nigh. As with many films that reach for something profound, the ending will be seen as a bit turbulent for some, whether because it goes a bit too far in what should have been a relatively simple story that doesn't need to turn operatic, or because it doesn't stick with its original convictions on where the Beatriz character needs to go to find peace in this world.
As potent as it gets so far in the Trump era as an indictment of the kind of person we've put into the White House, as well as who he has chosen to surround himself with as his advisors and cabinet, Beatriz at Dinner isn't much more than occasionally amusing, in between some of the scenes and characters that will make many afraid of the future of our nation, and our world, when the rich and privileged are allowed to steer the ship of human destiny. When Strutt tells Beatriz that they both know that the human race, and most other life people are trying to protect, don't have much longer on this planet, so they might as well enjoy it while they can, it can only produce more queasy shudders than knowing laughter at how many people think, and how dark the times might lie ahead when the haves have dominion over the have-nots as the world heads toward its inevitable abyss.
©2017 Vince Leo