Beatriz At Dinner Review
Beatriz at Dinner (2017) Film Review, a movie directed by Miguel Arteta, and starring Salma Hayek, Chloe Sevigny, Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, David Warshofsky, Sean O’Bryan, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, and Amelia Borella.
It’s impolite to bring up politics at the dinner table, but in Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner it’s the main course. Heralded by some as a biting allegory for the Trump era, the moody dinnertime satire could just as easily be a darkling counterpart to the old Peter Sellers film The Party. Featuring Salma Hayek as the titular Beatriz, the film catapults the hapless immigrant and massage therapist into the world of the rich but conspicuously not famous when her car breaks down and her wealthy friend asks her to stay for dinner with her equally wealthy colleagues.
Hayek is most certainly playing against type, but that’s hardly an indictment of her acting or the film as a whole. Gently unassuming, Beatriz is as spiritually attuned as she is environmentally conscious and imparts an earthy sensibility and approach to everyone and everything she encounters. Indeed, this might be the first time I’ve ever seen Hayek play a regular, everyday woman (and yes, her role as the token hot mom in the Grown Ups films is by definition excluded from this label), with her wearing the same modest outfit for the duration of the film.
It says a lot about Hayek herself that she can spend an entire movie in a funky button-up, cheap tennies, and cargo pants yet still be most the alluring person on-screen, but it doesn’t say much about her performance, which is the base on which the rest of the production lives. Portraying Beatriz as naïve enough to be intimidated and confused by her new surroundings but strong enough to try and navigate them, Hayek strikes the right chord of likeability and makes it possible for the audience to empathize, if not always sympathize, with this seraphic stranger in a strange, new land.
Her co-star and the primary antagonist of the film, on the other hand, is very much in keeping with the kind of character that the actor portraying them is known for. Doug Strutt is the latest in a long line of powerful old white men to be played by John Lithgow and while other such figures like Footloose’s puritanical preacher Shaw Moore are granted the dignity of development and a proper story arc, Strutt is little more than a caricature of everything progressives with all the right opinions hate about modern conservatism. Lithgow unsurprisingly does a good job with the role, but he’s really only there to give Beatriz something to strive against, and thank goodness too, because without him the movie would have ended much quicker to say nothing of being way less stimulating.
The supporting actors are strictly that and are effectively limited to being an amen corner for Lithgow’s smug business tycoon. The only arguable exception is Jeana (Amy Landecker), the glaringly young paramour of Strutt who jumps on seemingly every other statement he makes but never actually challenges the materialistic ideology he espouses and represents. They are polite enough to initiate conversation with Beatriz yet too self-absorbed to engage with her socially conscious table talk, which allows the film to write them off as spiritually atrophied decadents who are oblivious to Beatriz’s humble but manifest wisdom.
It’s a shame that for all the ways the story holds and the cast bring their characters to life that the message the story conveys and the forces the characters represent come into serious question when you exit the theater and really start to think about it. While it’s understandable that the movie would privilege Beatriz’s perspective on life, the environment, and everything over Strutt and his fellow revelers, the film acts as if arguments made by the latter are self-evidently wrong even when one realizes that they might have had a point.
At one point, Beatriz chides Strutt for his indifference to the suffering he is said to have caused and tells him that he should place more value on people’s feelings only for him to scoff and say that people aren’t as worried about feelings as they are about jobs. It’s easy to vilify Strutt for prioritizing work and other activities necessary to keep the machinery of society up and running over feeling others’ pain, but just how does Beatriz expect us to move a collectivist society that revolves around satisfying the needs of the many, economic considerations be damned?
More importantly, what would such a society look like? The Federation from Star Trek might be the first thing that jumps to mind, but barring the invention of replicators, it’s most likely it would resemble 1970’s Cambodia, where the Marxist Khmer Rouge took it upon themselves to forcibly evacuate thousands of their countrymen from the alleged corruption of the city and relocate them in the countryside, the imagined purity of which was intended to rehabilitate them. I’m sure Pol Pot was far from the mind of anyone involved with the making of the film, but the inarticulate mix of vague primitivism and strident anti-consumerism that it espouses opens itself up to comparisons with the supposedly “authentic” way of life that the killing fields were supposed to bring about.
As alternatively eyeroll inducing and eyebrow raising as its politics may be, the movie succeeds in doing two things that any great drama should do: maintain viewers attention and create tension. Compared to some of the action-packed, international-scale blockbusters out right now, nothing of real import happens here yet somehow we are unable to so much as zone out. We keep wanting to see what Beatriz is going to say or do no matter how uncomfortable it makes anyone onscreen or off-screen.
Mark Mothersbaugh’s score plays a big part in both aspects, as is most amply demonstrated in the scene when the guests first arrive. With the back of her head turned to the camera, Beatriz looks upon her company for the evening as they mix and mingle amongst themselves. We cut back and forth between different POV shots of the guests talking amongst themselves, but we don’t hear a word they say. Instead, all we hear is a beautifully pensive-sounding theme playing over the sight of these big shots talking and laughing at things privy only to people like them, the perfect soundtrack for what must be going through the bewildered Beatriz’s head.
It’s got quite the political axe to grind, but a great many great films do and no one holds it against them. The melancholic atmosphere befits the glum story and Salma Hayek’s sweetly innocent performance has to be one of her very best. If you like your dramas bittersweet and topical, then Beatriz at Dinner is the dish for you.
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