There is good in this world and there is evil and while it isn’t always easy to tell the two apart in real life, in movies and TV it can be more simple.
When one sits down to watch Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” it is easy to peg Salma Hayek’s title character as good. Beatriz is, after all, a healer, a woman who brings comfort and calm to those suffering from cancer and other ailments. It is also easy to mark John Lithgow’s business developer, Doug Strutt as evil. After all, he’s boorish and rude and racist.
While one may be correct in their assessment of the latter—this is the movie’s biggest failing, the character is far too broad—Beatriz may not be a pure saint. Either that or she’s just rude drunk. And so the movie, written by Mike White, unfolds, constantly offering the push and pull of this awkward meeting between Beatriz and Strutt, a meeting hosted by a couple for whom Beatriz has worked, Kathy (Connie Britton) and Grant (David Warshofsky), to celebrate the progress in a business deal between Strutt’s company and Grant’s. Beatriz is not at all meant to be at the dinner, but when her car breaks down, Kathy invites her to stay.
A relatively short film (under 90 minutes), “Beatriz at Dinner” feels the perfect length for its subject – it puts these two opposing characters who are at opposite moments in their life, together, adds alcohol, and just watches as things go badly. Grant and Kathy site there, unsure of how to cut the tension, and the other two dinner guests, Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), are equally confused.
What Arteta does brilliantly here is make us feel terrible for everyone involved. We feel how rude everyone is to Beatriz, even Kathy, at the start of the evening, and yet know Beatriz is perhaps out of bounds with some of her comments. But, then again, maybe she isn’t. Strutt is, obviously, a bad person. Forget how his company ruins land and displaces animals, we learn that he treats workers poorly as well. That doesn’t excuse Beatriz’s deeds, she certainly makes things worse when she doesn’t have to, but at what point should social niceties take a back seat to confronting villainy? This is a big question the film asks the audience to consider.
“Beatriz at Dinner” goes round and round, bringing the characters together, separating them, and then having them come back in a group once more. It feels like a rubber band, pulling apart and then snapping back together with force and sometimes pain. And, throughout, everyone is at fault. Everyone is wrong. Beatriz is undeniably less wrong, and actually has moments of being right, but she cedes any moral high ground as she continues drinking.
As noted, the biggest problem with all of this is that Strutt is never presented as good. He is a bad human being who does bad things and this makes “Beatriz at Dinner” slightly more weak than it otherwise might be. Between Strutt’s evil and the rest of the party’s indifference and rudeness, Arteta has tilted the table too far in Beatriz’s favor, which makes the conversations more empty than they might be.
The cast, fortunately, is able to pull this back somewhat with a series of powerful performances, particularly Hayek’s. The moments where she speaks up, announces herself and her feelings, offer a palpable tension. She commands the screen whether she is singing, massaging someone’s shoulders, or surfing the internet.
“Beatriz at Dinner,” despite its short length, is never rushed through any of the moments or scenes, and even takes time to give us some of Beatriz’s inner thoughts, or maybe visions. It is lyrical in nature and adds a beauty that might otherwise be missing in the subject matter.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions