It turns out that the zombie virus that will wipe us out— the very one that every movie overstuffed with invasive CGI hordes has been warning us about over the past decade and a half— exists, among other places, right here on our computers. While the contagion does not transform us into mindless cannibals, it does rob us of our ability to effectively converse with people who do not share our worldview. Every two minutes, the disease enflames another reddit thread, befouls a Facebook post, makes an undergraduate seminar discussion a place for tears, and yes, ruins a dinner party. It seems social media riles up our emotions in a way that far outpaces our capacity to respectfully express ourselves.
This dark phenomenon has been given its most elegiac consideration to date in Beatriz at Dinner. The latest product of the longtime collaboration between writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta— the pair previously teamed up on Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and HBO’s late lamented Enlightened— Beatriz at Dinner is squarely focused on the humanity on either side of the chasm of our differences. And while one is portrayed as quite saintly while the other as just a whiff of sulphur from demonic, the film rises above being either a polemic or straight satire. This is thanks to the empathetic directorial impulses of Arteta as well as the deft and sometimes profound performances he elicits from a fine cast of actors. Chief among these are leads Salma Hayek and John Lithgow. Who would have guessed that these two screen veterans— and not, say, a pair of alien-born transforming cars— would provide this summer’s most compelling and dynamic head-to-head face off. That said, all of this hard work comes thisclose to becoming undone by an ending that strikes out not once but twice.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER ★★1/2
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
Written by: Mike White
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton
Running time: 83 mins.
Before it bites like a lion, Beatriz at Dinner starts as a bunny— or rather, a seemingly innocent comedy of manners. Beatriz is a Los Angeles-based Mexican immigrant whose spiritual affinity and natural empathy has lead to a career as a healer, a profession that allows her to combine traditional massage therapy with a holistic approach to health maintenance. After she is called to a Newport Beach mansion to do some bodywork for Kathy (Connie Britton), a limousine liberal whose daughter Beatriz helped though a bout of cancer, Beatriz’s beater of a car craps out and she is invited across class lines to her client’s swanky dinner party. The party, it turns out, is actually more of a celebration of the closing of an environmentally damaging real estate development deal and the guest of honor is Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, a man famous enough for furthering this sort “progress” that he is in the process of writing an autobiography cataloging his exploits. When Strutt meets Beatriz, he mistakes her for the help and orders a drink; when she meets him, she is confident she has just encountered pure evil. Halfway through the film, her fears are confirmed when he shares a cell phone snapshot of what can best be called a Trump Boys’ Special: a big game quarry shot and killed on African safari. That’s when the humor White had been sprinkling throughout and the tension Arteta had been building expertly explode and the film becomes something altogether more serious.
Both Beatriz and Strutt would be cartoons in the hands of other actors, but Hayek and Lithgow give a master class in building characters from the inside out. Hayek caries the pain of her patients in her wounded eyes; she approaches this strange world of capitalism devoid of conscience with curiosity, heartbreak, and finally an anger that cripples her ability to feel, much less spread, compassion. Lithgow simply makes Strutt make sense; he is a man who sees hunting as the ultimate act of patience and perseverance, and development as a way of bringing order to chaos. Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny are excellent as a young lawyer and his wife who try the blunt the truth of the dark journey ahead of them with booze and small talk, while Britton is horrifyingly accurate as the kind of person who embraces diversity so far as it doesn’t ruin dessert.
Then there is the matter of the ending. At a dinner table, one cannot block, unfriend or even ghost. We must carry the psychic weight of the transgressions against us, and Strutt’s malfeasances all but bury Beatriz; she must act out. She does so more than once and the choices she makes fundamentally betray the character Hayek had been so thoughtful in constructing. Moreover it leaves the audience with the impression that given multiple options, the filmmakers made no decision at all, or worst, a hollowly nihilistic one. It’s not quite enough to completely undercut what had been an engrossing and well crafted chamber play of a movie, but it does leave you with the profound sense that all of these characters, the angels and the devils, deserve better.