The hopeless polarization of American society is both a truism and a taboo. We may be divided by class, race, ideology and any number of other forces, but many of us also cling to the belief — or the delusion — that a larger consensus still holds us together. Failing that, we can at least still be nice to one another when the occasion requires. Can’t we?
Beatriz at Dinner, a new film directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White, unflinchingly addresses that question, and declines to provide a comforting answer. The setting is a dinner party at a Southern California mansion made awkward by the presence of the title character, a massage therapist played with regal composure and understated mischief by Salma Hayek. The differences of background and economic status between Beatriz and her hosts are obvious enough, and the film hardly ignores them. But this is neither a simple satire of privilege nor a mock-provocative comedy of diversity and its discontents. It’s about a clash of values, about unresolvable contradictions. Or to put it another way, about good and evil.
Beatriz, who lives with dogs and goats and who works mainly with cancer patients at an alternative-healing center, is undoubtedly good. But because she is a Mike White heroine, she is also complicated, sometimes abrasive and not always pleasant to be around. She demonstrates obvious kinship with the characters played by Molly Shannon in Year of the Dog (which Mr. White wrote and directed) and Laura Dern in the HBO series Enlightened (which he created). Her righteousness doesn’t make her saintly. It makes her interesting.
The same word could apply to her nemesis and dinner-party sparring partner, a rich and powerful real estate developer with the slightly too onthe-nose name of Doug Strutt. Played with almost indecent relish by John Lithgow, Strutt has the smile of a cat who swallows a bushel of canaries at every meal. He is a big-game hunter and an all-around winner at the game of life, for whom money and wives (he’s with his third, Jeana, played by Amy Landecker) are signs of achieved destiny. He’s boorish, blustery and also charming in his way. And while he and Beatriz have nothing in common, each can lay claim to a kind of integrity, an honest view of the world and their existence in it.
The rest of the company is more ordinary — nice people, hypocrites, unable to comprehend the moral conflict raging in front of them. The hostess, Kathy (Connie Britton), who sincerely regards Beatriz as a friend, had insisted, over the objections of her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), on including Beatriz after her car broke down in Kathy and Grant’s driveway. Grant is a business partner of Doug’s, involved in a deal that also includes Alex (Jay Duplass) who arrives with his wife, Shannon (ChloëSevigny). Small talk is made and decorum is observed, until Beatriz figures out who Doug is and decides to confront him.
Mr. Arteta — who collaborated with Mr. White on Chuck and Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), and whose other films include Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids — doesn’t push the evening toward melodrama or farce. He directs with a dry, Buñuelian touch, savoring small absurdities and letting the larger themes hover in the soft Orange County air. It’s up to Beatriz to bring them up, to spoil the party and bring the movie to life.
The seriousness of its themes in no way detracts from the delight in watching Ms. Hayek and Mr. Lithgow perform their eccentric, intricate dance. Their commitment to the idiosyncrasy and unpredictability of their characters creates an unusual kind of suspense, a slightly uncomfortable kind of increased alertness. Where will this argument go next? How will it end?
I am surprised that more reviewers do not see Beatriz at Dinner as an examination of the psychological life of a poor and extraordinarily…
Not well, unfortunately. I don’t mean that something terrible happens, but rather that the filmmakers don’t quite succeed in bringing their story to a credible conclusion. But having said that, I have to admit that I have no idea what such a thing might look like. Beatriz at Dinner is about unresolvable contradictions, after all, which may mean that its failures are less specific than systemic. I don’t blame Mr. White or Mr. Arteta. I blame capitalism.
I blame America.