BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, directed by Miguel Arteta, 83 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It’s a truly classic premise at the heart of the new film from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, the pair who previously worked together on indie dark comedies Chuck And Buck (in which White co-starred as “Buck”) and the under-appreciated Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Good Girl. Their latest, Beatriz At Dinner, centers around a wealthy dinner party that takes on an unexpected interloper, the working class mystic/masseuse, Beatriz (played by the always-intelligent beauty Salma Hayek, suitably dressed-down here.) You can see where this is headed, the feathers of class will be ruffled, dinner will be ruined and someone is going to learn a lesson. Beatriz at Dinner hits all those beats but at least we can rest assured that White’s script is going to do it with some wit and the razor-sharp cast gets the most out of this little social gathering/class war.
With such an age-old set up, the intrigue is in the details. We first meet Beatriz as she’s leaving her rustic, humble L.A. home, pulling away in a sputtering VW and heading to the plush estate of her client Cathy (whose casual privilege is captured completely Connie Britton). Beatriz delivers not just massage but full holistic alternative medicine treatments, and the fact that she helped Cathy’s daughter through cancer years before has given her a certain respected status in the household. So when Beatriz’s car refuses to start it seems only natural she’ll be invited to dinner, despite the fact that Connie’s husband Grant (played with a nice undercurrent of anger by David Warshofsky) is hosting a special guest, celebrity real estate tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).
Another young business couple arrive (indie faves Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny) but we can see that the philosophical duel is going to be between Beatriz the Healer and Doug, whose fortune partially comes from destroying the communities in which he builds. The wine pours and as the evening goes on Beatriz’s conversation with Doug becomes ever more weighted while the hosts are busy backpedaling, trying to smooth over all the difficult points Beatriz raises.
Obviously the filmmaker’s sympathies lie with the saintly title character but Arteta and White haven’t worked in Hollywood for a couple decades by hating in the rich, so they supply the gluttonous Doug with a certain bemused charm, despite his open prejudice and callous attempts at sympathy. The banter between Beatrix and Doug, with the tiny Hayek seemingly dwarfed by the big-boned Lithgow, gets more and more confrontational as the evening wears on, building suspense on how the film is going to bring any resolution to this battle across America’s historically-wide distance between the rich and poor.
Maybe there is no resolution to this story while we’re in Trump’s America (ads are touting the film as “The First Great Film of the Trump Era”). The film throws out a lot of provocative thoughts but when it comes time to choose an ending the film waffles terribly, giving us a multi-pronged climax that offers violence, fantasy or tragedy as possible outcomes. This ends the film with a bit of a shrug, but at least Beatriz At Dinner leaves the lingering small pleasure in watching a voracious capitalist squirm uncomfortably for a few minutes. In the Trump era, one has to grab their pleasures wherever they can.