By Noah Gittell
The dinner party movie has been a staple of cinema for half a century, starting perhaps with Luis Bunuel’s cutting critique of the aristocracy, 1962’s “The Exterminating Angel.” As a genre, it’s preferred by directors with a bone to pick with the upper class, and why not? It is an exclusively elitist social function but with a democratic twist: Around a dinner table with strangers and friends, each person takes up the same large fraction of the common space. Some might see it as an opportunity.
In recent years, with screenwriters having a difficult time bankrolling any film that doesn’t feature a superhero, the genre has become popular due to its low budget and easy shooting schedule. “Beatriz at Dinner” has both goals in mind. It uses its modest budget to stage a simple but powerful confrontation between two classes, two ideals, and two magnificent actors.
For the creators of this comically tense film, the dinner party is an opportunity for economic and spiritual justice. The film pits Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a healer and homeopath who is recovering from her own childhood traumas, against the impeccably named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a narcissistic, entitled real estate magnate who would not normally be caught dead in the same room as Beatriz, unless perhaps she were wearing a maid’s uniform.
Their meeting takes place at the home of Grant (David Warshofsky) and Cathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter survived cancer with Beatriz’s help and who have benefited from their association with Strutt. After massaging Cathy, Beatriz is set to leave, but her car breaks down, and Cathy encourages her to stay for dinner. She’s not a member of the family, but Cathy likes to treat her like one, and that blurry demarcation becomes painfully clear over the course of their evening.
Screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta hit some notes that will be familiar to fans of their first collaboration, “Chuck and Buck,” a dark indie about an emotionally stunted young man who intrudes on the perfect life of his childhood friend. Their natural feel for class issues was also evidenced in their second collaboration, “The Good Girl,” which starred Jennifer Aniston as a Wal-Mart employee. The early scenes in which the guests arrive expose the facade Cathy has created; she and her friends show an interest in Beatriz, but only as it relates to their life. When they learn Beatriz is a homeopath, they each launch into monologues about their own issues with health and diet, and Beatriz is left to smile, nod, and be generally horrified by their narcissism.
Soon, she meets a narcissist she cannot brush off so easily. Although the film was written two years ago, Strutt is unmistakably a Trump avatar. He is a real estate developer with no regard for the little people. He refuses to pay workers a living wage. He pollutes the environment. He kills endangered species. It’s this last bit that sets Beatriz off. An animal lover grieving a lost pet, seeing a photo of Strutt next to a murdered rhinocerous sets up a confrontation that promises deep satisfaction for any viewer who has ever felt the desperate frustration of going up against an immovable political foe.
While the film’s critique of the ruling class is sharp and focused, the script smartly doesn’t turn Beatriz into a savior. She has little social grace. At dinner, she speaks at length about her upbringing in Mexico, well past the point of appropriateness. She drinks too much, which is surely a cause of her eventual outburst. Strutt symbolizes all that has oppressed Beatriz, but the film also critiques her fixation on him. Hayek’s characterization of Beatriz walks a razor-thin line between heroic and unhinged, which helps fill out a story that could be a bit too allegorical to be truly compelling.
It’s a brilliant set-up, but the story is admittedly a little thin. The screenplay could have given Doug more depth to balance the scales a bit, but if that’s your chief complaint, then “Beatriz at Dinner” was simply not made for you.
At its most satisfying, film can offer catharsis, but at its best, it offers exploration. If we ever found ourselves face-to-face with the personification of evil, what would we do about it? “Beatriz at Dinner” toys with every possibility, letting viewers explore these feelings within themselves.
My Rating: See it in the Theater