I’m not alone in my observation that Beatriz at Dinner will make the history books as the first narrative feature released since Trump took office that takes direct aim at the billionaire-game-show-host-turned-POTUS. It also has the distinction of presenting Salma Hayek’s Beatriz with the worst haircut of the actress’s career.
Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids, Youth in Revolt) is responsible for some of the nastiest, most squirm-inducing warm, lovely, humanistic indie comedies to come out over the past 20 years. He’s also the closest any comedic director’s come to visually jerry-rigging his unique, madly off-kilter view of the world since Albert Brooks pretty much hung it up (somewhere after audiences proved it unwise to release a comedy with the word Muslim in the title). Since he’s generally unable to approach cinema with anything but a satirist’s eye, it will come as a surprise to Arteta’s fans that the only thing even remotely funny about Beatriz are her bangs. Plus a pair of ill-fitting high-waisted slacks. Other than that, Hayek’s healer/alternative therapist is a pain-absorber who wouldn’t know a laugh if it jumped off the massage table and tickled her.
Beatriz’s day begins with the death of one of her baby goats — presumably at the hands of a neighbor — and things progressively worsen from there. The asthmatic cough of her engine turning over foreshadows trouble, and it’s at her last rubdown of the day, high atop the hills of Newport Beach, that her car finally flatlines.
Beatriz and her client Cathy (Connie Britton) have a bond of compassion that goes way back. Beatriz helped her daughter survive a cancer scare, and on any other occasion a seat at their dinner table and a bed for the night would have been a slam-dunk. Why is this night different from all other nights? A deal between the diners will finalize plans to build an enormous shopping center.
It takes a bit of doing, but Cathy eventually convinces her husband (David Warshofsky) to change his mind and invite the hired help to join their swanky dinner soiree. Until the party gets going, Arteta depicts Beatriz as an afterthought. Extended hands go unshaken. No one bothers to introduce her to the other dinner guests, and when they do, they’re treated to a queasy bearhug. While others converse, Beatriz is either shunted off to the side or the last to leave or enter the frame.
Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny, the first guests on the scene, are careful not to park their ride anywhere near Beatriz’s beater. On the financial scale, the attorney and his determined wife are the millionaire’s club wannabes of the group, two who revel in counting other people’s money. The evening’s blue plate special guests are Jeanna and Doug Strutt (Amy Landecker and John Lithgow), the latter a self-inflated billionaire real estate tycoon who bears more than passing resemblance to the current leader of the free world.
Hard though it may be to believe after seeing the movie, Doug Strutt was not based on Donald Trump. The impetus for the story began in 2015, when a dentist from Minneapolis famously shot Cecil the African Lion. The thought of screenwriter Mike White — an outspoken supporter of animal rights and a committed vegan — meeting such a man face-to-face gave the film its foundation.
Beatriz knows she’s crossed paths with Strutt. When pressed for an answer, Strutt, who automatically assumes she’s an illegal, shoots back, “Did you ever dance in Vegas?” Turns out they have met: Strutt was responsible for flattening the Mexican immigrant’s hometown and transforming it into a hotel and casino tourist mecca.
Beatriz finds she can stand no more, and proceeds to remove the gloves and rail against her dinner guest. By way of punishment, she’s sent to her room without her supper, where, instead of calling it a night, Beatriz fires up a joint and Googles her antagonist’s name. King Kong and Godzilla could learn a lot from watching these two acting titans clash. The scene of violence that soon follows helped earn Beatriz its R rating. As liberal wet dreams go, it’s the most satisfying moment put on screen since Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brothers Grimsby ended in Trump contracting AIDS.
This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White. The squirm factory stalker romp Chuck and Buck was followed by the silken satire The Good Girl. Those in the know tell me I owe it to myself to check out their HBO series, Enlightened, but considering the network it will probably be presented in the wrong aspect ratio.
Given the one-setting location, this could just as easily have been presented on a stage. For those who have heard the term “opening up a play” but aren’t sure exactly what it means, watch what Arteta and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield do with their camera.
By Beatriz’s own admission, “Healing is much harder than killing,” but neither option presented me with more difficulty than coming to terms with the ending, even days after having seen the picture. Without giving anything away, it sure in heck takes a lot of the sting out of the satire. Speaking with director Arteta proved most illuminating, but when it came to discussing the climax, he swore me to secrecy.