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Beatriz at Dinner

Yeah, this was bound to happen. A Mexican immigrant woman calling out a bunch of rich white assholes on their shit? In this political climate? Yeah, sure. Let’s bring out Beatriz at Dinner.

The titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a Mexican immigrant, a Buddhist, a vegetarian, and a practitioner of various alternative therapies (massage therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, etc.). She primarily works at a cancer recovery clinic, though she occasionally makes house calls for certain rich clients in need of a massage.

One such client is Cathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter was sent to Beatriz’ clinic after a Hodgkins’ diagnosis. Long story short, the family bonded with Beatriz and Cathy treats her like a dear friend of the family. But of course all of this is backstory. The story proper kicks off shortly after Beatriz’ pet goat is murdered in cold blood by her neighbor. Yeah.

A couple days later, Beatriz goes to Cathy’s house for a massage appointment so the latter can host some friends coming over for dinner and business talk. Trouble is, Beatriz’ car breaks down. Naturally, Cathy insists that she join in for dinner and stay the night until someone can come out to their gated community in the hills and fix the car. This turns out to be a mistake.

I won’t go into detail about our gallery of rich white assholes, since they’re all more or less interchangeable. Suffice to say that they’re played by John Lithgow, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, David Warshofsky, and the aforementioned Britton. Lithgow plays the foremost asshole — name of Doug Strutt — having been involved with a ton of controversial and environmentally destructive real estate projects, and he takes regular safari expeditions to Africa to hunt various forms of wildlife. You can imagine how Beatriz takes this.

The film’s central conceit is that we’re watching rich, white, self-absorbed assholes from the perspective of Beatriz, their polar opposite. In theory, it’s not a bad idea. In practice, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re spending time with these slimeball parodies of humanity. Moreover, it’s not exactly breaking news that self-absorbed, boring, ignorant, greedy, materialistic, white millionaires are fuckwits. I’m sorry, but that’s not exactly much of an artistic statement. Beatriz is an improvement, in that she’s interesting and sympathetic, but that doesn’t make it any less painful or pretentious when she starts going off on past lives or some other spiritual nonsense.

It takes a long, long time for this film to really pick up. But then Beatriz finally gets pushed past her breaking point and a few interesting things happen.

First and foremost, we see that Beatriz is overburdened with caring. That is her gift and her curse. She cares about animals, she cares about people, she cares about the planet, and she’s not the least bit selective in who she cares for. It’s taken a huge emotional toll on her, worrying about all the suffering in the world, and we can see that it’s made her a mental and emotional wreck. Compare that to our clan of white dickbags, who don’t care about anything but themselves and don’t lose a wink of sleep. So, where’s the balance?

Moreover, the fact remains that everybody dies. Nobody is denying that. The difference is that the white characters would rather enjoy what they have in the brief time they have it, while Beatriz would rather prolong life for as long as possible. Trouble is, Beatriz has put herself in a never-ending struggle with the Grim Reaper, and there’s no way to win that fight. On the other hand, the white characters are so focused on their own lives that they don’t consider what they’ve left behind after they’re gone. They may be dead, but future generations will have to deal with the environmental fallout of their real estate dealings.

And of course the “business is business” argument is brought up. Doug makes the clear statement that people need jobs, money, goods and services, and so on. He’s not wrong. Beatriz says that the world needs healing and people need someone to ease their pain. She’s not wrong either. Yet Beatriz makes a point of talking about a time in her childhood when people were literally forced from their homes at gunpoint for the sake of an illegal land grab, so the film definitely seems to take Beatriz’ side. Though again, she’s not wrong.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, a lot of what makes this film work is thanks to Salma Hayek. She’s such a phenomenal actor that we can plainly see all the pain and anger in every wrinkle on her face. Granted, it might have been a bad choice to cast Salma Freaking Hayek like she could ever be made to look plain, but still. Of course, it also helps that she has such a tremendous scene partner as John Lithgow, and Connie Britton is no slouch either.

But what really breaks this film is the ending. Something as emotionally charged and intellectually challenging as this film aspires to be needed to leave us with something powerful that we could take home. Some convincing thesis that encapsulates the whole movie and its varying conflicted viewpoints. What we got instead was an incoherent and pretentious bit of tedium following a shameless fake-out in place of a climax. Pathetic.

To be clear, I know this film has its supporters, and I understand why. It’s outrageous and unfair how people of color are treated as illegal immigrants, servants, and second-class citizens before they’re treated as people. It’s disgusting how we have white privileged douchebags living in their gated community bubbles with more money than they could ever need, willfully ignorant of all the world’s problems just so long as they’re fat and happy. These are all valid frustrations, the film portrays all of them, and I respect that.

The problem, however, is that mere portrayal isn’t enough — it has to actually make a statement or tell a story. It’s hard for me to justify spending time and money on this movie when my Facebook feed is flooded every day with posts that comment on the exact same topics with more intelligence and tact. I don’t need or want such a heavy-handed movie to tell me what I already know about class inequality or institutional racism. And I expect that the very people who would need such a film are — regrettably — the ones least likely to watch it.

Beatriz at Dinner has its good points, but they’re all outweighed by the bad. For every genuinely interesting idea and argument to be made, there’s at least a dozen moments that are preachy and pretentious. Even if the performances are solid, that’s barely worth a damn when the characters are so thin and all the most interesting things about them are told to us as backstory. And of course the inconclusive ending doesn’t do anyone any favors.

I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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