If the Trump era has taught us one thing, it’s that some differences are irreconcilable; you can talk at each other for hours, and those at opposites sides of an argument will never see eye-to-eye.
Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t do anything to help assuage the unpleasant nature of this basic truth. There’s no sugar-coating, and there are far fewer laughs than the film’s marketing would have you believe. In writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta’s latest collaboration, we experience a war of words that feels like War of the Worlds. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a healer. Doug (John Lithgow) is a ruthless real estate mogul. In Doug’s very own words: “This can’t possibly end well.”
With short baby bangs and a face devoid of makeup, a nearly unrecognizable Hayek melts into the role. Beatriz is a woman who is immensely sensitive, which is her gift and her tragic flaw. She wants to make the world a better place, and she has devoted her life to healing those in need at an alternative cancer treatment center in California. The story at the film’s center kicks into gear when Beatriz’s car breaks down at her wealthy client Kathy’s (Connie Britton) lavish estate after a routine massage appointment. Beatriz is stranded 60 miles from her home, and Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are getting ready to host a very important dinner party for their business associates that evening. Kathy, ever the gracious hostess, invites Beatriz to join them for dinner.
The dinner party guests are made up of Kathy, Grant, Beatriz, and two other couples: Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny); and the main guest of honor billionaire Doug Strutt and his third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). Doug – played with delicious sleaze and pomposity by Lithgow – is the complete opposite of Beatriz, both in politics and demeanor. This can’t possibly end well.
Things start out fine enough, though Beatriz can’t hide the fact that she’s an outsider looking in. A plainly dressed Mexican woman in a sea of the white one percent, she drifts from room to room, her idea of appropriate small talk at complete odds with that of the other guests. She lacks the social consciousness to know what topics are appropriate, as well as the ability to go with the flow of a pre-existing conversation. She talks about her goats, steers the conversation towards past lives and reincarnation, and perhaps most significantly, she recounts her ability to feel the pain of a dying animal her father hurt when she was a little girl. Her gift and her demise: she feels the pain of the world too intensely.
The evening comes to a head when Doug passes around a photo from his latest big-game hunting expedition. It’s a moment that offends Beatriz to her very core. So what to do? Do you smile politely and let the moment pass by, or do you take action? I think you can guess which route Beatriz takes.
However, Beatriz at Dinner is at its most effective when critiquing not the current political climate, but rather class hierarchies. Kathy and Beatriz’s relationship is simultaneously sincere and a façade. We know that Kathy truly considers Beatriz a friend, but when introducing her to the other guests, Kathy is just a little too overeager, trying too hard to justify Beatriz’s presence. She’s like a woman who overexplains a bruise on her arm; the more details she gives, the more suspect it seems and the less natural it feels. The two women come from vastly different worlds, and no matter how progressive Kathy considers herself to be, we can see that she’s not blind to those divisions.
Many have complained about the ending of the film, which I won’t spoil here. But I ask you: keeping the storyline in mind, what ending would you have found satisfying? I imagine you can’t think of one. Like those dizzying ring-around arguments with those on opposite party lines, you usually come out of the verbal sparring feeling drained and empty. Why even try to change someone’s mind? What’s the point? Beatriz at Dinner acutely answers these questions: There is no point.
It’s not that Beatriz is purely good and Doug is the epitome of evil. But with such a stark contrast in morals and ideals coming together, things are boiled down to superhero/supervillain basics. To quote Harry Potter: Neither can live while the other survives. And end well it does not.
Beatriz at Dinner is now available on iTunes.