Ever sense that a movie has a lot to say, but never figures out how to say it? That’s Beatriz At Dinner, a topical social class commentary that never finds its message. This would be less sad if it wasn’t trying so hard to be meaningful.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a Mexican immigrant who has a goat and dogs in her modest Los Angeles home. She works as a massage therapist at a cancer center, and says she can feel her patients’ pain. For the viewer she’s supposed to be “everyone,” a hard worker just trying to make her way in the world.
After a traffic-filled drive to Newport Beach to massage wealthy friend Cathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz’s car breaks down. Cathy has a small dinner party that night, and to the chagrin of her husband Grant (David Warshofsky), invites Beatriz to join them. Invitees include ambitious young couple Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny), and wealthy real estate developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).
It’s Doug who gets the most attention. “I have opinions, and because I have money, people listen,” he says, truthfully. He’s brash, sometimes rude, says whatever he wants and doesn’t think twice about cutting someone off. He gets away with this because he’s rich and no one dares to correct him. He makes no apologies for the life he’s led, the people or animals he’s disregarded to build his properties, or the big-game hunting he enjoys. You might presume he’s based on Donald Trump, but that would only be partially true; screenwriter Mike White wrote the script in the summer of 2015, when Trump came onto the national stage discussing Mexican immigrants, but also in the news was a dentist killing a lion in Africa, etc.
If you’re expecting the spiritual Beatriz to go head-to-head with the bullish Doug, they do, but only to an extent. Director Miguel Arteta and White have the annoying habit of stopping short every time the conversation gets interesting, ostensibly for the reason of rudeness. After all, how dare the barely middle class Beatriz challenge affluent Doug about anything? The problem is, merely exposing this unequal social custom isn’t enough. A respectful conversation between the two would’ve been more fascinating, but neither Doug nor Beatriz is capable of listening and being respectful.
As opposed to the similarly themed The Dinner Game (1998) and its lesser American remake Dinner For Schmucks (2010), which were comedies, Beatriz At Dinner is a straight drama. This is important because it means it does not use humor to expose social folly, as the aforementioned movies did, and as a result we’re forced to take everything Beatriz does seriously. So when pieces of Beatriz don’t add up, and/or Beatriz’s actions are questionable, it loses the audience at a time when we need to root for her. White’s script tries to get us to view Beatriz as a saintly figure who does nothing wrong early on, so we’re supposed to agree with her actions no matter what. Blindly agreeing, however, would contradict what appears to be one of the film’s points, which is that virtue and thinking for yourself are important when confronted with herd mentality.
Having to extrapolate the deeper meaning of a film that has every opportunity to explicitly state the meaning yields a frustrating viewing experience. Beatriz At Dinner will get you thinking, but doesn’t offer enough to have a real impact.