Beatriz at Dinner review: A Latina Lorax battles a Trumpian titan
Beatriz Luna is having a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day. Her motley tribe of adopted animals is at its unruliest. The teenage cancer patient she's been helping is now in the disease's terminal stage. And after battling hours of traffic from Los Angeles to an exclusive enclave of Newport Beach, her sputtering VW has broken down in a rich woman's driveway. Making it all worse, last night her neighbor killed her beloved pet goat Geronimo. The spring-loaded Buddha on her dash and La Virgen de Guadalupe hanging from her rear-view mirror can do little to console Beatriz (Salma Hayek). She's going to have to wait until a friend can drive down from L.A. to fix the car—except that he later calls to say he can't make it until morning.
Saintly by nature and a healer by trade, the heroine of Beatriz at Dinner is trying to stay positive. But damn, la vida, that's cold.
To the rescue comes la gringa de gringas, her massage client Kathy (Connie Britton), who insists that Beatriz not only stay the night but attend a dinner her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is throwing for his businesses partners, who have just glad-handed a local politician into granting permission to develop a huge tract of unspoiled land. An orphaned Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. as a child, Beatriz senses that this is a terrible idea, but accepts because a few years ago she nursed Kathy and Grant's cancer-stricken daughter back to health. Kathy considers her a friend—a member of the family, even. But chale, Beatriz. You know better! That hüera Kathy has no clue.
The guest of honor at this intimate, home-catered affair is a rapacious developer and celebrity gazillionaire named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), an unholy amalgam of Donald Trump, Charles Koch and every master of the universe who has paid top dollar to shoot endangered rhinos and tigers. "I've been to the buffet of life, I've tasted everything," he says. "Waiting for some beast to emerge from the brush—there's no bigger rush. It's very pure."
Doug and Beatriz are clearly destined to be besties. It's too bad he's off the market and has brought his latest trophy wife (Amy Landecker) with him. Also, maybe his first words to her shouldn't have been: "Can I get another bourbon, hon?" Still, Beatriz attempts to be cordial, offering homeopathic tips on how to cure the kidney stones of young striver Alex (Jay Duplass) and even briefly giving Doug a semi-psychic shoulder rub. But all the other guests can do is crack jokes and revel in their good fortune. For Beatriz, it's like observing an alien civilization.
Borinquen director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Youth in Revolt) and writer Mike White (School of Rock, Enlightened) have engineered this epic culture clash so thoroughly that we expect nothing less than a societal fallout cloud worthy of Look Who's Coming to Dinner or that time George and Weezie Jefferson brought Lionel to visit the Bunkers on All in the Family. And yes, the meal generates a few sparks but the stakes never seem all that high. At one point Beatriz — three glasses of wine in — is sent to her room after pitching a fit over Doug's "disgusting" snapshot of a safari kill. Now those are consequences!
Despite hailing from the fictional town of Tlaltecuhtli —a name that refers to an Aztec earth goddess — and singing a devastating norteño ballad, there's little that's particularly Mexican about Beatriz. She could be any reiki-performing, gaia-worshipping eco-warrior. "The earth needs old souls because it is very sick," says this Latina Lorax, speaking for the trees. A brief fantasy sequence suggests a far more interesting outlet for her anger, but the film seems satisfied with a mere airing of grievances before concluding on an unlikely final scene of Beatriz becoming one with nature.
Early in their careers, Arteta and White collaborated on the acclaimed dramas Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), two nuanced portraits of intimate relationships coming unraveled. They again assemble a top-flight cast for Beatriz but a host of strong performances can't override volleys of pat exchanges. Rather than an illuminating dialog between polar opposites, we get little more than Doug's self-satisfied puffs of cigar smoke and Beatriz's stone-faced piety. Far more affecting are the casual displays of wealthy privilege, as when a frumpy Beatriz, still dressed for work, attempts to relate to three stiletto-heeled glamazons — Britton, Landecker and Chloë Sevigny, as Alex's arm candy — cackling over hacked photos sent by a well known actress to her gynecologist.
In Trumpian times like these, Arteta and White could have offered the world something really useful: practical tips on how to deal with a dinner companion who turns to The Fountainhead for enlightenment. Screaming at such a man and storming out does little to change anything, especially when he's distracted by tweeting his id to the universe. (In Doug's case, he's working on a memoir with the potential title Life Is A Game and Guess Who Won.) Beatriz has the right words: "Try healing something. That is hard. You can break anything in two seconds." But she doesn't have the guile to make him hear. We need a film like Beatriz to make us all hear something new, but those words failed to make their way into the script.
Perhaps they would have gone something like this: Unless, gente. Unless.