Beatriz at Dinner

beatriz_at_dinnerSTARS4The Beatriz (Salma Hayek) in Beatriz at Dinner is a massage therapist. More specifically, she’s a natural healer who works at a holistic cancer center in Los Angeles. When we first meet her she’s having an idyllic daydream of rowing a boat as it glides down a picturesque river. It’s a sunny day, there’s a flock of birds flying overhead, and then the bleat of a goat. It cries out again and she’s awakened to the sound of the actual goat she keeps in her bedroom. Yup. She lives in a modest LA apartment and keeps goats. She loves animals. She has dogs too. She drives a VW beetle with the bumper sticker “Have a Nice Day…unless you’ve made other plans”. She makes house calls. Her longtime client is Kathy (Connie Britton), an extremely wealthy but progressively minded housewife. Kathy and her husband live in a Newport Beach community behind multiple levels of security gates. When Beatriz’ beat-up old VW bug won’t start after completing her massage therapy, Kathy invites her to stay for dinner.  She is hosting an intimate shindig for some important co-workers of her husband. Kathy is unceasingly friendly toward Beatriz. In fact, she wears her accommodating treatment like a badge of honor. It’s not without conflict, however. She must force her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) to accept the presence of Beatriz at their little affair.

Beatriz at Dinner is a new production directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White. The two have worked together before, most notably on Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). White has a gift for making the audience ill at ease. He creates odd personalities in awkward situations. The Mike White written and directed Year of the Dog (2007) is a perfect example. His latest screenplay, Beatriz at Dinner, is another. The drama concerns three couples. In addition to our aforementioned hosts, Kathy and Grant, there’s attractive but haughty couple Shannon (Chloë Sevigny ) and Alex (Jay Duplass). Chloë Sevigny, in particular, makes the condescension of her character seem almost elegant. But the alpha guest is John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, a billionaire real estate tycoon. He is accompanied by his third (and much younger) wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).

You can’t read a critique of this film without the reviewer noting a connection between Doug Strutt and Donald Trump. It’s a rather glib comparison. Granted the U.S. president currently occupies the media’s attention in a capacity never seen before – in my lifetime anyway.  However, I’d say Lithgow’s portrayal is a more nuanced stand-in for a universal archetype.  White has said the idea for John Lithgow’s part was inspired from the fallout regarding the Minnesota dentist and big game hunter who killed Cecil the Lion on African safari in 2015.  In fact, one key scene has Doug Strutt passing around his cell with a photo of his latest conquest, a Rhino.  The scene ends with Beatriz angrily hurling the phone across the room at the mogul.

The script has an ear for dialogue, but what sells the discourse is its nonjudgmental point of view.  Everyone is a character, but no one is a stereotype.  These people do indeed exist.  What makes the set-up such a delight is its off-kilter sense of humor.  The turn of events are not here to change your mind or sell one point of view. It’s to expose a situation that is ripe for humor. The exercise places us in Beatriz’ shoes so we’re ostensibly on her side. Yet the comedy is uncomfortable and sometimes it’s not clear whether it’s mocking the haves or the have-not. The recommendations of this natural healer are so clearly out of place amongst these people. Her home remedy of apple cider vinegar and dandelion root to cure some random ailment is met with bemused patronization. “Oh dandelion root, honey.  Your favorite!” Shannon coos.  It’s hard not to snicker along with her and then immediately hate ourselves for doing so.  The screenplay is remarkably shrewd in this way.

Salma Hayek is a beautiful actress, but as Beatriz, she is plain and mousy. She wears no makeup and sports unflattering bangs.  Given the unexpected circumstances of her being stranded, she’s underdressed for their little get-together too, wearing mom jeans and athletic shoes.  She walks tentatively but purposefully throughout the home.  Beatriz is an outsider.  At first, she glides from one room to another like a cat quietly eavesdropping along the fringes of the gathering. She hovers so much that early on Doug Strutt asks her to freshen his drink, mistaking her for the help. You instinctively want to chastise him because we know who she is, but then his mistake is kind of understandable given her behavior. Incidentally the help, Kathy’s chef, is a white male (John Early).  As the party continues and the conversation deepens our understanding of these people Beatriz’ eyes are opened. To her, Doug Strut is the personification of evil. He represents everything that is wrong in the world. You can see her wrestle with how she should proceed throughout the course of the evening. Should she confront the man or merely satisfy her curiosity with questions to try and understand him or perhaps she should take much more dire actions. The wine flows freely and additional glasses make her bolder as the evening progresses. As Margo Channing once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

We are a nation ideologically divided.  It is the intersection between conservative and liberal viewpoints that is presented here.  Mike White is a brilliant comedic writer by choosing to have this discourse under the auspices of an awkward dinner party. He has fashioned a sophisticated comedy of manners in which he mines humor out of tension and discomfort. There’s a caustic tone that recalls writer-director Todd Solondz, but White shows more compassion. It’s a fascinating watch for the majority of the drama. Unfortunately, the narrative is flawed.  The ending is a frustrating cop out that left me unfulfilled.  It’s simply not up to the standard of the rest of the film. However for about three-quarters of the picture I was captivated. Salma Hayek gives the performance of her career. She absolutely nails the role. Her performance is mesmerizing. Actually, the entire ensemble is compelling with every actor bringing a humanity to their parts.  They may not be admirable, but they do feel genuine.  Beatriz at Dinner implausibly brings them all together for one evening.  I was uncomfortably entertained.

06-22-17

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7 Responses to “Beatriz at Dinner”

  1. “Uncomfortably entertained “. That is an awesome way to describe how I felt too. I held my breath every time I saw Beatriz’ thoughts spinning in her head. Will she burst or keep it together. I never cared too much about Salma Hayeks’ performances, but this one had me loving her. Full cast was great too. 4 stars

    • When I think about her most lauded performances, Frida (2002) immediately comes to mind. Some of her collaborations with Robert Rodriguez well received…Desperado, for example. This one might top them.

  2. “I was uncomfortably entertained.” Damn, I’m sorry I missed this. I was going to check it out today, but Baby Driver has arrived, effectively kicking this one out of the only theater playing it.

    John Lithgow is so good at playing smarmy. I can only imagine what he’s like here.

  3. “Uncomfortably entertained”, now that’s got my attention.

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