Film & Television

‘Beatriz at Dinner’: Standing Up or Minding Manners?

American movie audiences are currently being treated to the “origin story” of a certain Wonder Woman. One of my favorite true Hollywood origin stories is about Salma Hayek. Hayek had a fairly successful acting career on a Mexican soap opera when she (against the advice of her peers) moved to Tinseltown. Her first big break was starring opposite Antonio Banderas in Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 Desperado. She felt pressure to take the role even though the sex and nudity disturbed her so much they had to reshoot scenes because she was crying through them. When the film was released, critics called her a “bombshell.” Unfamiliar with the term, she assumed that they meant it was her fault if the movie was a “bomb.” She was surprised to learn that critics were actually calling her “sexy.”

Since then, Hayek’s English has improved, as have her roles. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend catching her in Julie Taymor’s masterful Frida.) More often than not though, Hayek, who turns 51 in a couple of months, is still cast in parts that make the most of her sultry looks and curvaceous figure. But, her latest movie, Beatriz at Dinner, bucks that trend. With a severe haircut, no makeup, and drab workclothes that successfully hide her figure, Hayek is plain to the point of androgyny. Yet she has a penetrating gaze and an otherworldly quality that draws the eye even when she’s surrounded by well-coiffed, designer-clad trophy wives. Still waters run deep and there’s a depth to Beatriz that defies the shiny lacquer of so-called “ladies who lunch” or, in this case, “ladies who dine.”

And what a meal it turns out to be.

Beatriz at Dinner, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, has been called “The first great film of the Trump era.” But, White actually wrote the script two years ago. (Interestingly, the movie’s premiere at Sundance very nearly coincided with the date of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.) Using a familiar theatrical convention, natural adversaries are forced to break bread together and manners are quickly thrown out the window. In this case, whether White anticipated Trump’s unlikely win or not, he certainly created a Trumpian character with whom Beatriz spars.

Beatriz is a Mexican immigrant, living in Los Angeles and working as a massage therapist and holistic healer. She spends her days at an integrated medicine cancer center, but works with freelance clients after hours. One such client is the wealthy Cathy, whose daughter responded well to Beatriz’s treatments when she was fighting and recovering from Hodgkin’s. After a particularly difficult day and still mourning the loss of a beloved goat, Beatriz finds herself stranded at Cathy’s Newport Beach mansion when her car won’t start. (Apparently no one there has heard of Uber yet.) Cathy invites her to stay, including her to join an intimate dinner party she and her husband Grant are having.

Beatriz is introduced to an ambitious younger couple, Shannon and Alex, and the guest of honor, real estate tycoon Doug Strutt and his third wife Jeana. As the evening progresses (and more and more wine is poured), Beatriz finds it impossible to ignore Doug’s boasts about his business acumen, his lack of regard for the environment or local communities, and his accomplishments as a big game hunter. When he passes around a selfie with one of his recent trophies (an enormous and very dead rhino), she flips.

Cathy and Grant are appalled. (“Doug Strutt paid for this house!” Grant yells at Beatriz; while Cathy insists “I don’t feel like I even know you.”) Shannon and Alex roll their eyes. Jeana isn’t really supposed to have an opinion. (“You’re well compensated,” Doug reminds her when she jokingly complains about her subordinate position.) Interestingly, Doug is the only one who isn’t disturbed by Beatriz’s outbursts. He rather enjoys a good debate and has no problem whatsoever defending any and everything he’s done in the pursuit of wealth and the American dream.

You also get the distinct impression that he likes — or rather loves — the sound of his own voice, especially when it’s relaying his latest triumph. Early on, he tells the other husbands that his memoir may be called, Game Over. Guess Who Won? But, while he may see Beatriz’s unconventional behavior as nothing more than an amusing game, she is utterly humorous and deadly serious.

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  • AA June 27, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Thanks for the review. I love movies that can make one feel a bit uncomfortable-lots of issues here that are current and controversial

    Reply