BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) – A Morality Tale Without A Lesson

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Beatriz at Dinnner_poster

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character at a dinner party one evening.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic medical practitioner and a massage therapist. When she makes a long drive out to a wealthy client’s California beach-front home to make a house call, her car breaks down. Her client, Cathy (Connie Britton) generously invites Beatriz to stay for dinner until the mechanic arrives to repair her car.

Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is lukewarm to the idea, since the dinner party is work-related, and they are entertaining the larger than life business giant Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), but Cathy insists. For one thing, she says, Beatriz is mourning the death of her pet goat, as her bully of a neighbor recently killed it in shocking fashion, and also, they owe a great debt of gratitude to Beatriz, since she was instrumental in helping their teenage daughter get through and ultimately survive her cancer treatments. So, Grant relents, and Beatriz joins the party.

Things are awkward throughout, as Beatriz simply doesn’t fit in with this class of people. At one point, Strutt mistakes her for one of the servers. But Cathy makes all the appropriate introductions, and the dinner proceeds as favorably as it can, until Beatriz hears Doug speak of things that truly disturb her, from the way he hunts animals in Africa, to the way he conducts his business deals.

Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Beatriz finds herself having to make a decision regarding her feelings towards Mr. Strutt.

I can’t say that I really liked BEATRIZ AT DINNER all that much. For a while, I was interested in what was going on, and I was very curious about where this story was going to go, but where it ultimately goes, I thought was a major disappointment.

Director Miguel Arteta succeeds in making a very uncomfortable movie.  The scenes at the dinner party, where at times Beatriz is completely ignored, and at other times when she speaks, it’s of things the rest have no interest in, are wince-inducing. Of course, this is exactly the point, and director Arteta captures the class differences perfectly.

There’s also the jarring juxtaposition of the elegant decor of the home and the dress and demeanor of the wealthy guests with the plain and simple Beatriz, who looks as out-of-place as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. Sadder still, Beatriz doesn’t seem to realize how out of place she is.

These scenes work well, and I truly felt the rift between the two classes.

The trouble I had with BEATRIZ AT DINNER falls with the script by Mike White, a screenwriter who wrote a couple of Jack Black comedies, SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) and NACHO LIBRE (2006). BEATRIZ AT DINNER is about as far removed from a comedy as you can get.

The set-up is perfect. The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful. But the payoff isn’t up to snuff. Throughout the dinner, Beatriz says she thinks she knows Doug, and she also speaks about how people are reincarnated, and in their next lives they often settle debts with people they weren’t able to settle the first time around. At one point, she thinks Doug is a man who built a hotel in her home village which caused many in her village, her family included, to be forced to relocate. She quips that if he were that man, it would be fate that they met again, as she would have to kill him.

There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion.

The acting is all very good.  Salma Hayek, of course, is excellent, in a very understated performance. She’s also photographed here as plain and as unflattering as possible, which contributes to her performance as the simple and straightforward Beatriz.

Likewise, John Lithgow is very good as Doug Strutt. And while he makes Strutt sufficiently annoying, he actually does a very good job instilling some sympathy into the character.  As such, in spite of what I had heard, Strutt didn’t really remind me all that much of Donald Trump, even though it’s clear that’s who the character is based on. But I found Lithgow’s interpretation of Strutt more well-rounded and sympathetic than the real-life Trump.

The cast of supporting characters is excellent. Connie Britton is effective as Cathy, a woman who goes out of her way to make Beatriz feel welcomed and comfortable, and who later feels personally wounded by Beatriz when things get ugly.  Even better than Britton is David Warshofsky as Cathy’s husband Grant. He really has no patience for Beatriz, and it shows.  I found him to be even less likeable than Doug Strutt.

Jay Duplass as Alex and Chloe Sevigny as his wife Shannon, and Amy Landecker as Doug’s wife Jeana round out the guest list and all do an admirable job.

There are also some memorable lines and sequences. When Jeana jabs at her husband and talks about how often he embarrasses her, Doug quips, “You’re well-compensated.” The grilling of Beatriz by Doug regarding her immigration status was a particularly disturbing scene. And when Beatriz speaks of her core beliefs, of how powerful and difficult healing is, how it is a much more challenging thing to do than to hunt and kill, as Doug had been boasting, it’s one of the most potent moments in the movie.

Yet, none of this goes anywhere. The film seems to be satisfied with showing a slice of life dinner party between two classes of people. The climax comes when Beatriz realizes she has a decision to make. Unfortunately, the one she makes, is unworthy of the rest of the movie.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is exactly what its title implies: it’s a dinner party conversation. And like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

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