BEATRIZ AT DINNER Leaves Audiences with Societal Heartburn

Good actors are thoroughly wasted in one of the most issue-driven films of recent memory.

During the filming of Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek celebrated her 50th birthday. Having to work on that day, she arrived on the set and was greeted by a mariachi band who began playing music in her honor. Later on, the film’s director Miguel Arteta told her that one of the film’s producers had worried whether having a mariachi band to celebrate the actress’s birthday was politically correct or not. Hearing this, Hayek approached said producer, thanked her for the gesture and then said, “Really? A mariachi band? Are we having tacos for lunch?” As the producer went white and began to tear up, Hayek finally told her she was only joking and was genuinely moved. While funny, it’s incredibly sad that the anecdote, told by Hayek on a recent talk show appearance, was more comical and social in the most naturally charming way than the actual film in which she was starring in.

Beatriz at Dinner stars Hayek as the title character, a massage therapist specializing in holistic practices. After traveling to a rich Southern California suburb to give the wealthy Kathy (Connie Britton) a massage, Beatriz experiences car trouble. With help a long ways off due to traffic, Kathy insists Beatriz stay as her guest for the dinner party her and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are throwing for friends and business associates Shannon (Chloe Sevigny), Jeana (Amy Landecker), Alex (Jay Duplass), and high-powered real estate mogul Doug (John Lithgow). When the group sits down to eat, sparks immediately fly between the ultra conservative, elitist Doug and the humanity-loving Beatriz.

There is very little about Beatriz at Dinner one would call subtle, and the film as a whole suffers because of this. Nearly everything about the film, from its set-up to its ideology, from the central character’s values to the guests’ materialistic tendencies, is so heavy-handed. Writer Mike White must have written the script with a sledgehammer, as he and Arteta seem to be airing out their frustrations aggressively instead of just letting their characters genuinely talk. It doesn’t matter, though, since virtually everyone we meet in Beatriz at Dinner is not a character, but rather a composite – an assortment of society’s apathy and mind-numbing cluelessness ripe for tearing apart. The tearing apart itself would be fun, but the film can’t even do that right, abruptly ending every showdown between Beatriz and Doug without even saying anything that wasn’t obvious before. Not everyone is a straight composite, however, as Doug, with his collection of hotels, knack for getting out of lawsuits, and two sons following in their father’s footsteps, is the very definition of caricature.

At the risk of doing nothing but ripping the well-intentioned film apart, there is one key scene in Beatriz at Dinner which works beautifully. After Beatriz has lost her composure, Kathy says to her alone, “I feel like, I don’t even know you anymore.” Beatriz looks at her and plainly responds, “You don’t know me.” It’s such a telling scene and a culmination of a relationship Kathy thought to be genuine friendship that was actually just one-sided. Kathy may have thought she knew Beatriz, but all she really knew was that she liked the way this woman made her feel, nothing more. It says a lot about Kathy as someone almost boastful and proud of herself for forming what she feels is a real bond with a woman who is her polar opposite. But for all her good intentions, she’s never actually taken the time to discover WHO Beatriz is. A film exploring these two women at different ends of the spectrum and what they really mean to one another would have been quietly explosive, involving, and said so much about today’s society. Yet that would have meant fully delving into Beatriz as a character, which sadly the film is so incredibly careful not to do.

The performances remain the film’s biggest casualty, as good actors are stuck doing remarkable work in a movie nowhere near deserving of their talents. Hayek has such an incredibly strong presence, even in the moments in which she’s simply observing the others, and delivers each of her lines with the utmost intelligence and compassion. Yet, it’s those moments where the actress is silently staring when she is absolutely captivating, finding much to say with just her eyes. Despite the film’s flaws, on many levels, Beatriz IS a great role for Hayek to play, continuing her ability to find strong and authentic representations of Latina women to portray on screen.

She’s given one of the best sparring partners around in Lithgow, who unexpectedly delivers a true tour-de-force performance. His Doug is self-aware and confident, and the actor is wise enough to bring forward his ego and arrogance without taking him to moustache-twirling territory. Britton is lovely and actually manages some slight depth with her character (as much as the overblown script will allow, that is) while the rest of the cast has nothing to do but act blandly wealthy.

Beatriz at Dinner was one of the most agonizing movie experiences I have had in a while. The film is only 83 minutes long and yet feels almost the size of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy due to the unending awkwardness and sheer lack of enjoyment. Driving home after the film was over, I uncovered the reason why the movie made me so uncomfortable and actually disturbed me. I think it’s because deep down I realized that there were aspects of me to be found in both Beatriz and Doug. While I would like to believe I’m more like the former than the latter, the film has the ability to force self-examination onto its audience in a way few others ever have, causing them to question themselves in relation to love, peace, money, and ethics. The end result is the discovery that everyone is swimming in a sea of moral complexity with very few ever going back to shore. I didn’t enjoy Beatriz at Dinner one bit, but for this reason, I will never, ever forget it.

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