Beatriz at Dinner

2017-12-29 06:07

What it's about:

Beatriz (Salma Hayek), an immigrant from a poor town in Mexico, has drawn on her innate kindness to build a career as a health practitioner in Los Angeles. Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) is a cutthroat, self-satisfied billionaire. When these two opposites meet at a dinner party, their worlds collide and neither will ever be the same.

What we thought:

Clearly released now as counter-programming against the major blockbusters and kids movies released at this time of year, Beatriz at Dinner is the very definition of a “small film”. It mostly takes place in a single location, with a small group of characters, telling a story that is low on plot but – theoretically, at least – high on characterisation and theme. At barely eighty-minutes long, it's literally small too.

It's the sort of film that snobs would immediately consider to be better than all them loud, dumb blockbusters and the, shall we say, less discerning cinema-goers would find them to be boring and pretentious just by definition. Both reactions are idiotic, of course. The intimate “maturity” of Beatriz at Dinner is no more a sign of quality than a large budget or whether the film is part of a larger franchise are. It is what it is and should be judged accordingly.

I mention this because it's undoubtedly clear that those looking for a cinematic outing that involves a bit more action and plot than a few, largely unpleasant people sitting around talking about the sort of things that are a staple of every uncomfortable dinner party ever, then this film clearly isn't for them – which is fine but it's certainly pointless to judge it according to the way one would judge something like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The big question, then, is taking the film for what it is, does it do what it sets out to do?

Not to bury the lead here but the answer, sadly, is a very simple: No. It's clearly very well-intentioned and has enough talent to burn on both sides of the camera but the film is simply nowhere near as profound, as moving or as engaging as it thinks it is. 

As the premise suggests, this is a film that sets out to explore the sharp divide between the very rich and the decidedly not so rich; between shrewd American capitalism and a way of living that is positively Marxist by comparison; between naturalised Americans and those who still proudly wear their root culture on their sleeves. It's also, in the middle of all this, a story of a woman slowly giving into desperation and depression as she comes face to face with – well, herein lies the problem...

While the greater, more global themes are handled with far too broad strokes – I'm something of a lefty but even I thought the film's expression of crass, cruel capitalism was seriously lacking in any sense of nuance – the more personal story feels incomplete. However much of the film plays out as a showdown between Salma Hayek's earthy, unassuming but fiercely passionate Beatriz and John Lithgow's sneering, contemptuous real estate mogul, the truly interesting story of Beatriz facing down her own dark demons is never allowed to come out of the shadows.

The problem certainly doesn't lie with either Hayek or Lithgow – both of whom put in top-drawer work here, though the film unwisely seldom allows their impressive comedic chops to add a bit of much-needed humour to a terribly po-faced affair – or any of their very solid supporting cast (it's especially nice to see Connie Briton on the big screen for a change, but with both Mike White's script and Miguel Arteta's direction.

Both White and Arteta have done fine work in the past, sometimes even together, but somewhere between Arteta's strangely overbearing direction and White's overblown but underdeveloped script, the film simply fails to paint a convincing portrait of a crisis of identity, or at least faith. A huge part of that is undoubtedly the fact that the film's social-political dynamic hits with far less subtlety than even something like the gloriously pulpy Archie-Comics TV reinvention, Riverdale, but also with the portrayal of what exactly causes her downward spiral in the later parts of the film.

Whether it's her disillusionment with the American dream, with the fakeness of her apparent “friends” or, what I suppose might be considered, a confrontation with her own Jungian shadow (fittingly, the most interesting but least likely interpretation), Beatriz's clearly major inner-turmoil feels less subtle and/ or ambiguous than it does under-explored. 

Her antagonist at this particular dinner is so plainly revolting that he never comes across as someone who would rattle someone as clearly grounded and wise as Beatriz. There's nothing about him that should surprise her any more than the fact that her client’s husband would effectively subjugate his better instincts to impress his horrible boss or that either of them would freak out when one of her outbursts potentially threatens his, so to speak, good-standing with that clearly less than morally upstanding boss.

Beatriz comes across as slightly socially awkward and may even have some of that potentially feigned guilelessness that most alternative healers seem to have in such abundance but she doesn't strike me as someone who is so cut off from the world that such an encounter should do anything but strengthen her moral resolve as someone who is fundamentally better than these repugnant examples of the worst excesses of the “one-percent”.  

And that, ultimately is the film's biggest problem. For all of its strengths, I simply didn't buy what it was selling. I didn't buy its politics. I didn't buy its social critique. Most of all, though, I just didn't buy its characters. All the good intentions in the world can't make up for that.

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