Since their first collaboration, 2000’s Chuck & Buck, the dark character studies of director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White have stood out for their pungent sense of class difference. Their work derives its squirmy comedic mileage out of setting up clashes between those who embrace “traditional” (read: capitalist) notions of career advancement and societal norms and those who seem oblivious to them. During Arteta and White’s recurring partnership on White’s sorely missed HBO series Enlightened, their work took a more explicitly political turn, positioning flawed but ethically motivated characters against soulless corporate entities. Broad and pat, Beatriz at Dinner takes this trajectory to its logical endpoint, pitting a beatific immigrant therapist against a ruthless real estate mogul.
The obvious comparisons to our current national disgrace don’t do the film any favors. Though the motivating tension of this small ensemble chamber piece lies between Beatriz (Salma Hayek), an alternative healer and massage therapist born in Mexico, and Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a businessman who’s blithely made his fortune bulldozing indigenous communities into luxury resorts and golf courses, Beatriz at Dinner does succeed at depicting more nuanced social and economic ties. Beatriz only finds herself in the company of Strutt and a handful of high achievers after she drives from Los Angeles to a gated community in Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a longtime client, Cathy (Connie Briton). Cathy adores Beatriz, who helped her college-age daughter recover from a cancer scare years ago, and when Beatriz’s car breaks down after their massage, Cathy presses her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), to allow her to stay for a dinner party celebrating the impending close of a mammoth real estate development deal.
Despite its gestures toward nuance, the very broadness of the dichotomies in the film prove to be its undoing.
From the outset, there’s something grave about Beatriz. She’s mourning the recent murder of one of her city-dwelling goats, but Hayek’s performance also suggests a more persistent unease about the path of the world. When Cathy’s other guests arrive, this discontent bubbles to the surface; Beatriz is aware that she’s an outlier, and her game attempts to ingratiate herself with the others are futile. Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny play strivers who perceive Beatriz’s profession as an engagement with wellness trends; Strutt asks her if she’s a legal immigrant, as his wife (Amy Landecker) and everyone else shudders. As a skewering of the frivolity and casual cruelty of the filthy rich, the film is a failure, but perhaps that’s because the social class it depicts is beyond parody. Much of what’s meant to be subtle about the film—how Beatriz is set apart from other characters, and how conversations are cut to reveal how she’s outnumbered—is just sad and inevitable.
The film’s screenplay mines a few interesting observations about the stark social and moral differences at play here. White’s resolute commitment to flawed characters yields a protagonist that’s at once boundlessly empathetic and entirely humorless. While Cathy and her guests speak in quips, Beatriz’s stories unfold in long paragraphs, and she bristles whenever she’s interrupted. Emboldened by alcohol as the golden hour turns to night, Hayek’s unwanted guest develops an escalating rivalry with Lithgow’s tycoon, whom she begins to view as a cause of the planet’s impending collapse and (perhaps delusionally) the ruin of her place of birth on Mexico’s coast.
White and Arteta are among a small number of artists producing mainstream entertainment that hums with unbridled fury at the damage corporate greed has wrought upon the very fabric of our planet, and that audacity remains thrilling. But despite its gestures toward nuance, the very broadness of the dichotomies in Beatriz at Dinner prove to be its undoing. This is a rigged game designed to remind us that the whole system is itself rigged against those who care about anything more than themselves and their bank accounts.