I am getting thoroughly sick of defeatist, dystopic, dyspeptic, despairing movies, TV shows, and news. I grant you, we live in the era of Trump, and this tone is not surprising or altogether unwarranted. But it’s getting old, this idea that we need to fear and fight some terrible irrational enemy. So I rather welcomed the cool rationality — and heated passion — proffered by Beatriz at Dinner.
And was dreadfully let down.
Beatriz at Dinner is about a sensing, feeling, caring healer who loves children and animals, the earth and humanity, who confronts a callous, big game–hunting developer who loves money, power, position, and more money. I thought — as the reviews and preview had promised — that this duel/duet between Salma Hayak and John Lithgow would be a smart, savage airing of differences à la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a fair fight, and when I tell you who was unfair, you will be surprised.
The movie’s premise is flimsy to an extreme: Beatriz can’t get her car to start after giving her long-time client a relaxing massage in advance of an Important Business Dinner Party. The client, sufficiently grateful for Beatriz’s healing ministrations to her daughter during a bout of cancer that she considers her a friend, impulsively suggests Beatriz join the party.
A really really bad idea, and one that could have been so easily averted through an Uber offer or a brisk refusal — particularly when Cathy’s husband makes it clear to both Cathy and inadvertent eavesdropper Beatriz that she is not wanted.
But here she is, and when the first invited guests arrive, Beatriz gamely jumps in, immediately winning confessions from them of their most private and personal problems (he suffers from kidney stones), and I felt hopeful the movie would build on this: that outsider Beatriz would subtly bring out the best and expose the ignoble.
And ignoble Lithgow’s character is: smug, arrogant, avaricious, and amoral. After he initially mistakes her for the help, he then cuts her off, patronizes her, and proceeds to ignore her. Which is of course crummy of him, but her insistence on interjecting herself and her self-righteousness into the party’s complex dynamic is equally inappropriate. For heavens’ sake, she throws his cell phone, tells Cathy to shut up, and dresses down the guest of honor. I found my sympathies lodged firmly with the mortified hostess.
As Beatriz’s indignation mounts, the rest of the dinner guests — their generally repugnant values and sense of entitlement nothwithstanding — remain relatively polite and well bred. Her anger seems out of proportion, out of place. I am sure this was an intentional choice on the filmmakers’ part: to have the humanist’s hysteria countered by the calm of the cruel. But it really didn’t work for me: she had no business being there, and no real reason to rail.
At the end, Beatriz slits Doug Strutt’s throat, bringing down her own big game. Except not really; it was a fantasy and instead she drops the letter opener and moves toward Strutt. And here is what I think should have happened: she should have embraced him. Not to forgive him or condone him, but to love and acknowledge his humanity. But instead she leaves with the tow truck driver, only to stop him part way through the trip so that she can climb down to and walk into the Pacific Ocean to her death. And here too I had an alternative: when she died, so too should Doug. Showing a kind of cosmic, karmic balance in keeping with Beatriz’s worldview.
The movie is being proclaimed as a tale of the Trump era. And I know that I should not deplore it for not being the film I wanted it to be, but should accept it on its own terms. But I long for meaningful engagement, even more so in our fictions since the stalemate in our government and national dialogue denies it. I had hoped the dinner party would feature the confident parry and thrust of scintillating verbal swordplay. But there was no meaningful debate, no exchange, no enlightenment, just a calcification and validation of each person’s own beliefs. I realize this was a deliberate choice by the writer and director. But what hope can we have if even our fantasies are defeatist? We can build on acceptance; we cannot move forward in polarization.