Sundance Film Review: ‘Beatriz at Dinner’

Sundance 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

In the first dramatic comedy for the Age of Trump, Salma Hayek is luminous as a holistic healer who clashes, at a dinner party from hell, with a voracious real-estate tycoon.

I’ve been coming to the Sundance Film Festival since 1995, and if you asked me to pick the most audacious film I’ve ever seen here, it would probably be “Chuck & Buck,” the thrillingly twisted — but humane! — arrested-development stalker love story written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta. (White also starred in it.) It played here in 2000, and though other films grabbed bigger headlines, it was enough of a landmark that White and Arteta recognized what they’d brought out in each other and decided to team up again. Two years later, they were back with “The Good Girl,” a solid but much safer comedy (it starred Jennifer Aniston). Now, after 15 years, they’ve reunited for “Beatriz at Dinner,” a small-scale but elegantly deft squirmfest that features a luminous performance by Salma Hayek. It also has the distinction of being the first dramatic comedy that’s an explicit — and provocative — allegory of the Age of Trump.

Hayek plays Beatriz, a Los Angeles massage therapist and holistic healer enveloped in the hush of her own sad solitude. She’s saintly and girlish (even though Hayek is now 50), sort of like a nun, and she lives with her dogs and goats, one of which was recently strangled by her next door neighbor. That sounds like a black-comic Mike White jape, but Beatriz is not a character with a sense of humor, and the movie never laughs at her. It does, however, look at her with a teasing sense of mystery. Hayek, in bangs and a plain blue shirt, makes Beatriz a gravely soulful presence, always staring into the middle distance, as if she had seen a vision. At first she doesn’t say much (that will change), but what’s going on with Beatriz — who she is, what she wants — is the film’s playfully suspenseful enigma.

After making her rounds at the Arendale Cancer Center, an alternative-medicine facility where she has an office, Beatriz drives her puttering old Volkswagen up to the palatial seaside mansion of one of her clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), whose teenage daughter she helped to care for when the girl was recovering from chemo. Beatriz is the help, but she’s also a “friend of the family,” so when the VW breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner. Even though it’s a business dinner. With a lot riding on it. In which Cathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), will be hosting the legendary real-estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).

Arteta, who has spent most of the years since “Chuck & Buck” working in television (though he did make the darkly imaginative Michael Cera comedy “Youth in Revolt”), has a gift for knowing how long to hold a shot, for when to keep the characters at a middle distance or draw them in close. Cathy and Grant’s guests start arriving, in their tacky splendor and vulgar conversation (with Jay Duplass as the biggest putz on hand), and as soon as Beatriz starts to greet each one of them with a Buddhist hug, we can tell where the movie is going: Beatriz, who has zero in common with these swells, is going to be the spoiler, the fly in the ointment. Everyone is drinking, so she starts having glass after glass of white wine, and that’s enough to buzz her into becoming …

The Mike White pest! The “innocent” passive-aggressive wallflower who somehow finds a way to slam her ego into the center of things. As soon as she starts babbling at the dinner table, it’s awkward, but the real trouble arrives when she looks at Lithgow’s merciless tycoon and thinks that she knows him. But from where? Was he the one who built a luxury hotel in her Mexican village, chasing people out of their homes?

If so, the coincidence might seem contrived, but White’s script is cleverer than that. Strutt is portrayed as a voracious pig who is all about acquiring, dominating, destroying, and taking pride in how little he could care about who gets hurt. You could say that he’s a satire of Trump, and you wouldn’t be wrong (you don’t introduce a character who’s a real-estate baron, and who talks about razing land before anyone can discover he’s done anything unconscionable, without expecting people to make the connection), but he’s really a takeoff on the spirit of Trump. Lithgow frees him from cliché by making him, beneath the greedy bluster, more reasonable than you’d expect: a titan who can afford to be polite, because he knows that he’s going to crush you anyway. This actor understands power from the inside; he doesn’t just act it — he chews on it and savors it. Beatriz, who’s got his number, is his opposite spirit: the immigrant who wants vengeance. It’s a situation wired for a showdown, and the movie is like a comic fuse that sizzles until it detonates.

Mike White broke through to audacity again in the HBO series “Enlightened,” but in his film scripts, it’s become a little too easy to make out the pattern, the crafted design. That was true even in “School of Rock” — though Jack Black and Richard Linklater, while remaining true to White’s rock-is-now-for-kids concept, made it shake, rattle, and roll. In “Beatriz at Dinner,” White and Arteta are an infectious team again, and they’ve created the kind of Trump-tweaking film that specialty audiences will surely want in 2017: one that says there are two American destinies now, and that we’ll have to choose between them. Hayek’s performance, by the end, grows unexpectedly moving. Yet “Beatriz at Dinner” is a little tidy. It seizes and charms without soaring.

Sundance Film Review: 'Beatriz at Dinner'

Reviewed at Eccles Theatre, Sundance Film Festival, January 23, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production

A Killer Films, Bron Studios production. Producers: Pamela Koffler, Aaron L. Gilbert, David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon. Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Alan Simpson, Richard McConnell, Sander Shalinsky, Lewis M. Hendler, Jose Tamez, Brad Feinstein, Paul Tennyson.

Crew

Director: Miguel Arteta. Screenplay: Mike White. Camera (color, widescreen): Wyatt Garfield. Editor: Jay Deuby.

With

Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky, John Early.

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  1. Jim says:

    I liked this film. The one thing I keep thinking about is how Beatriz eventually identified wealth and particularly Strutt himself as the cause of all the sickness. It seems the idea of murder for her would in some way be a form of mass healing. But she couldn’t bring herself to do that. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

  2. Brill says:

    Who is Naroli? And where was the rich peeps daughter?

  3. Nana says:

    Didn’t like the ending. Suicide? Was that the booze? Was she overwhelmed with her job suddenly even though it made her feel good about herself. Was she just depressed and dealing with the 1% and knowing she really doesn’t make a difference send her over the edge? The fire lanterns was that symbolism that the 1% just keep soaring? Showing her in a rowboat among the mangroves was that symbolism that she was at peace?

  4. Leticia Aranda says:

    I think there is so much more to the movie than what has been explained. Beatriz’s last name is Luna (Moon), in Aztec mythology, there was a Moon god who had a daughter who was a river goddess. She was also life giving (water is the source of life). We’re told Beatriz was separated from family and then we find her healing by the sea (the cancer center). She wears blue, she wears a necklace with a dolphin charm, she stares at the blue artwork in the living room… so much. There is great symbolism in Beatriz’s death. Going into water tells little, it’s where one emerges that tells the real story. Did she cleans herself from the sin of imagining the murder of Strutt? Did she emerge clean on the other side? Is her travel akin to traveling in the River Styx? Is she making her way back home? The movie is bigger than I had expected.

    • waverlyroot says:

      @Leticia – Thanks for unpacking the symbolism. I just saw it last night and I’m still processing it. I was so busy monitoring my own horrified reactions that I completely missed what you bring up. The River Styx analogy is brilliant.

  5. Apparently, Wikipedia classifies this film as a “comedy.” To which I respond, “Huh?” Spoiler alert: Having seen it last night, I will assert that it is no comedy. It is a tragedy, a culture clash destined for disaster. The mashup of fantasy and reality sequences can be jarring, but in the end, it makes sense. Salma Hayek’s character, an arrogant and emotionally disturbed proto-Leftist whose life is in a downward spiral and realizes it in the company of complete opposites, has nowhere to go in the end except out the exit door of life itself. The movie is very well done, but trust me, it is NOT meant to be funny.

    • I agree this movie is not a comedy. There is a sense of magic realism. Universal good and evil dance together in the plot and character development. It is a good movie. Great cast, thoughtful dialogue. The theater had 6 people watching a 10 am early bird. I hope more see the movie in prime time.

  6. Eddaliz says:

    No comments just questions… who was the girl in boat she would daydream about? Why did Beatriz kill her self? Was she really talking to someone in the phone or make believe there was someone there from her Mexican town that passed away maybe her sister?

  7. jane bec,er says:

    it’s got a garbled ending that makes little sense. This movie is not worth the price of admission.

    • Rachel says:

      The girl on the boat is herself. She killed herself in the ocean because she fantasized about murdering someone (she was a healer but she was afraid she could become what she was trying to heal). Her character also felt others’ pain and thought she couldn’t do enough to absorb or heal it. An emotional and heartbreaking movie that I’m glad I saw but don’t know that I could watch again. Very sad. Also, I’m sure I’m over-simplifying, as I think all the characters in the movie had more personality, background, and thought processes than I could ascertain from a movie.

    • Crazyhorse says:

      Right on.

  8. Sam says:

    Miguel Arteta is a genius!

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