Beatriz at Dinner is Thin Fare

Directed by Miguel Arteta
Roadside Attractions, 83 minutes, R (language)

There's a line from an old Don McLean song that goes: The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. He was singing about Vincent Van Gogh, but the lyrics could have been written for the titular character of the new Miguel Arteta film Beatriz at Dinner, though I'm glad McLean didn't waste his words on the biggest dud I've experienced over the July Fourth holiday.

Beatriz (Selma Hayek) is a middle-aged woman with an old soul. She works as a holistic healer at a Los Angeles cancer clinic where she's part massage therapist, part yoga instructor, and part New Age practitioner. Because she's, you know, Mexican, she also has gig as freelance masseuse to the rich, pampered, and clueless. How else can she afford to live in San Jose and put kibbles in the dog dishes and greens in the pen of her pet goat?

Aside from a few establishing shots, this film covers a single day in Beatriz's life—one in which she leaves her day job, battles rush hour traffic, and wends her way to the gated hillside estate of a regular client, Kathy (Connie Britton), who simply must have a massage before her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) entertains a few very exclusive business associates: Yuppie hotel builder Alex (Jay Duplass), his pampered wife, Shannon (Chloë Sevigny); and the big fish: Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). Strutt is one of the world's wealthiest people, a rapacious real estate mogul without a PC bone in his body or a hint of social conscience in his soul. He's accustomed to getting what he wants, which gives him free rein to be a loud-mouthed bigot who seems to have been fashioned out of equal parts Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, and Walter Palmer (the moneyed dentist who killed Cecil the lion).  When Beatriz's car won't start and she becomes the unwanted seventh dinner guest, the stage is set for a clash between her humanistic, Gaia-centered values and the cultures of arrogance and greed.

Beatriz at Dinner has been called a Trump-era morality tale. By all rights, I should have loved this film and its messages. The bling-and-brag crowd couldn't be more awful in their money-grubbing inhumanity, materialistic shallowness, and soul-crushing smugness. They represent the puppet masters that make the Make America Great Again lumpenproletariat dance like limp marionettes. And yet, I disliked this film pretty much from its onset.    

It could have been a dark and frank look at social class, ethnocentrism, and avarice. To have been so, though, would have required an ingredient fully missing from the menu: nuance. By tarring Strutt (get it?) and his circle with such a broad brush, director Arteta reduces evil to cartoon-like caricatures. And by continuing to slather layer upon layer of that tar, the Strutts of the planet become unbelievable rather than indefensible.

Perhaps this would have made a searing play. It is clearly a vehicle for Lithgow, who does his best to convey amoral creepiness. His is a superb performance and he should not be blamed for the weaknesses in Mike White's screenplay. Lithgow, alas, is the only one with much to do in this film.

The rest of the ensemble is competent, but underutilized—especially Britton, Sevigny, and Landecker, who spend most of the film either being catty or shrugging their shoulders in "Whatcha gonna do?" apologies for the outlandishly jerk-like behaviors of their respective alpha males.  Though she is the co-star, Hayek doesn't sparkle either. She spends some of the film interrupting conversation, getting unattractively drunk, and committing social faux pas. Call them characteristics out of character for her character, though very few people would behave this aggressively, even before the most deplorable of hosts. The rest of the time, Hayek doesn't speak much at all; she hovers around the film's edges and looks sad. Pan to Hayek's sad face. Move in on her even sadder eyes. Feel the weight on her sad shoulders…. And if you haven't gotten the fact that Beatriz is, like really sad, overlay her disconsolance with hints of homesickness glimpsed via flashbacks of a gauzy youthful idyll.  

I do not wish to defend the lifestyles of the opulent and boorish, but this film fails to take them down. It's far too trite to do that.

Rob Weir

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