By Kim Hughes
Given today’s political culture, it was only a matter of time before a movie like Beatriz at Dinner arrived, positing contemporary North America as akin to pre-revolutionary France.
To wit: a fraught battleground where scruffy-but-caring “have-nots” challenge polished-but-vacuous “haves” for moral superiority even as (especially as) they struggle to stay afloat.
And it could have worked powerfully if director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Cedar Rapids) trusted his audience to get that point all on their own. Unfortunately, Arteta reduces his leads to caricatures lest anyone mistake the villains for the heroes.
That the film is playing to Team Have-Nots is clear from the start. Dowdy Beatriz – a persuasive Salma Hayek in roots and no-makeup because the marginalized don’t live near drug stores – is a healer with a heart of gold. Steward to animals and cancer sufferers alike, Beatriz is one of the good ones even though the world seems hell-bent on taxing her optimism every step of the way.
Beatriz’s nemesis Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) is a hard-drinking narcissistic developer whose contempt for the environment and those pesky indigenous people living in it is only slightly outweighed by his scorn for the rights of big game in Africa.
Because they float in such different orbits, Beatriz and Doug would never intersect were it not for a twist of fate, one hinged on Beatriz’s poverty: her crappy beater of a car breaks down at the home of a super-wealthy client she is massaging, and she is invited, awkwardly and portentously, to stay for a dinner party while she waits for a friend to come help. Cue Doug, exit subtlety.
That Beatriz doesn’t fit in with these highly coiffed, Grey Goose-sipping dandies (yes, they name the vodka) is obvious: the ladies wear fancy shifts and heels, Beatriz – just getting off a day of real work – wears sneakers and a ponytail. I mean, can you imagine?
We know where we’re headed the even before the meat-eating Doug and the plant-eating Beatriz start sparring for keeps. Indeed, it’s clear from the moment Doug probes Beatriz’s immigration status with the delicacy of a Trump tweet at midnight.
What follows is, until the last 10 minutes or so, pretty much the most predictable class divide showdown ever filmed. But then, something happens. Something quite sad and unforeseen, and director Arteta manages to assuage smug viewers with what feels like a trump of a different sort. And then, well…
Had Arteta and screenwriter Mike White (also the director's co-conspirator on 2000's Chuck & Buck) been less devoted to echoing an obvious point – rich people’s entitlement-fuelled actions can have real consequences on the vulnerable - Beatriz at Dinner could have been funny and sharply drawn, building on Hayek’s strong performance. Instead, it’s a clunky morality play rendered in crayon.
Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Chloë Sevigny, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker. Opens June 16 at Cineplex Odeon Varsity & VIP Cinemas.
An entertainment/lifestyle writer and editor of an exquisite vintage, Kim has written about film, music, books, food, wine, cosmetics and cars for the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, Report on Business, Amazon.com, hmv, Salon, Elevate, CBC, Spafax and many other marquee properties. She lives in Toronto and is a proud volunteer with Annex Cat Rescue.