Beatriz at Dinner: The Donald v. Salma Hayek

*** (out of 4)

Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner is one of the first movies to take a stab at providing social commentary in the Trump era. On the surface, its brevity (82 minutes) and ostensibly simplistic premise – seven people have dinner together – could easily make it seem like a piece of fluff. But don’t be fooled: what goes down here is a bitter yet surprisingly gripping clash of economic, social, and cultural worldviews. On one side, you have Beatriz (Salma Hayek), an alternative-medicine practitioner who emigrated from Mexico, owns two goats as pets, and loves talking about the beauty of nature. On the other lies Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a wealthy businessman who hunts rhinos, engages in questionable ethical practices, and values the “creation of jobs” above all else.  Throughout the evening they spend together, the two of them, as you can probably imagine, don’t exactly become best friends.

In terms of insights into today’s political climate, the most valuable lesson Beatriz imparts concerns the utter lack of self-awareness with which liberals and conservatives go about conversing with one another. You may find yourself admiring Beatriz for her fierce, Rachel Carson-esque devotion to the environment, but she often rudely interrupts her fellow guests in order to launch into aimless monologues on the “sickness in today’s world”; her ability to hijack the flow of conversation would leave even the most socially awkward nerd aghast.  Meanwhile, Strutt and his fellow guests are card-carrying members of the upper class who are also completely unaware of their own superficiality. They talk with the affected enthusiasm you inevitably find at cocktail parties, and you could easily picture them as the well-dressed, self-regarding fools who are always walking down a road to nowhere in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Nobody in this allegory is perfect, and in that sense, Beatriz provides a useful reminder that both sides of the aisle have got a lot of listening to do.

If Beatriz maintained such an impartially critical attitude throughout its running time, it’d truly be a searing indictment of American economic and political bipolarities. Unfortunately, Arteta has trouble hiding the fact that he prefers Beatriz to Strutt, and the movie consequently ends up shooting itself in the foot. Strutt and his business dealings are portrayed as invariably corrupt and exploitative; in contrast, however, Arteta never seriously examines the dubious underpinnings of Beatriz’s so-called “alternative therapy.” The ending, moreover, is a series of abruptly melodramatic scenes that collectively constitute a progressive fantasy gone off the rails. Even if you look past the fact that such excess  proves a clumsy way to cap off an otherwise minimalist story…well, let’s just say that Beatriz would not be receiving the acclaim it’s been getting had Arteta made Beatriz a right-wing evangelical.

Still, even if Beatriz doesn’t completely finish what it sets out to accomplish, there’s more than enough good in it to make up for its failings. Both Hayek and Lithgow give powerful, Oscar-worthy performances. The lighting – Beatriz’s dreams of rowing down a river are bright and shiny, but she’s enveloped in drab shadows in real life – is apt. And despite the story’s clear liberal slant, Arteta isn’t utterly devoid of sympathy for Strutt. There’s a brief moment near the end when Strutt has a private conversation with Beatriz, and even though your id may be vehemently telling you otherwise, you’re made to realize that he actually shares her aims on a deeper level. It certainly would’ve been nice if Arteta engaged in more such humanization. But as it stands, the Beatriz he’s made at least succeeds in providing an accurate, riveting depiction of an America still struggling to pull itself together.

***

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Chloe Sevigny, Connie Britton

Running Time: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language and a scene of violence.”

Produced by: Aaron Gilbert, David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler

Written by: Mike White

Directed by: Miguel Arteta