Accusatory 'Beatriz at Dinner' leaves subtlety on the table

Posted June 23

“BEATRIZ AT DINNER” — 2 stars — Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloe Sevigny, David Warshofsky; R (language and a scene of violence); Broadway

“Beatriz at Dinner” is a bizarre, finger-pointing, us versus them kind of movie. Its battle lines are clear, even if its ultimate message isn’t.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a humble Southern California massage therapist and animal lover who is raising a small (probably illegal) zoo in her apartment. She’s in mourning over the recent loss of her favorite goat, which she believes was killed by an angry neighbor.

Beatriz’s favorite client is Cathy (Connie Britton), a woman wealthy enough to live in a prestigious gated community in a house big enough to feature a full staff of live-in servants. Years earlier, Beatriz helped Cathy’s teenage daughter through a bout with cancer and has blurred the line between service provider and family friend ever since. So when, after her client-friend’s regular massage, Beatriz finds that her beater VW won’t start, Cathy insists that she stay for dinner.

Dinner is actually a celebratory dinner party. Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is marking a significant development deal with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who runs a major corporation called Rife Worldwide. When asked if he builds hotels, Strutt smugly responds that he just owns them. Strutt is a cartoon caricature of a capitalist: arrogant, wealthy, corrupt and quick to share any politically incorrect observation that mechanically springs to his mind.

If you sense an allusion to our current president, you won’t be the first.

Strutt and his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker) arrive on the heels of Cathy’s other guests, Shannon (Chloë Sevigny) and Alex (Jay Duplass), an insufferable pair of social climbers hoping their involvement in the deal will be the key to future boundless riches. It’s about the worst possible combination for poor Beatriz, and as she lingers awkwardly around the perimeter of the conversation, Strutt mistakes her for one of the servants.

As we watch the evening unfold through Beatriz’s eyes, the wealthy elite skip from one topic to the next, always touching on some sort of offensive element of their exclusive lifestyle. For her part, Beatriz always manages to say or do the most awkward thing possible, until eventually settling for confrontational soapbox tirades, usually directed at Strutt. About midway through the evening, Beatriz also begins insisting that she recognizes Strutt, and it becomes clear that their distant connection will only take the evening from bad to worse.

Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White clearly want us to side with Beatriz against Strutt’s two-dimensional real estate tycoon, and Lithgow’s bad guy turn is so on point it’s hard not to. But the most sympathetic characters in “Beatriz at Dinner” are the unfortunate hosts. It’s easy to feel for naïve Cathy, who was just trying to help a woman she feels is a friend. And then, to Grant’s horror, that friend winds up throwing a cellphone at his guest of honor.

The fact that Beatriz feels equally to blame for the evening’s awkwardness makes “Beatriz at Dinner” much more watchable, but its transparent mission might have benefitted from a little more subtlety, and an ambiguous ending will leave you wondering just what Arteta and White intend you to take from all the festivities, especially in light of today’s heated political climate.

The characters in “Beatriz at Dinner” feel so two-dimensional as to feel symbolic, but even if you don’t buy what Arteta is selling, his film will still feel painfully relatable to anyone who ever had to show up at a party where they knew they didn’t belong.

“Beatriz at Dinner” is rated R for language and a scene of violence; running time: 83 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.


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