Reviewed by © Jane Freebury
Think ‘when worlds collide’ with this one.
Unexpected dinner guests can create quite a stir. There is something of a cinema sub-genre out there that shows how they can seriously upset the status quo. From Wetherby, to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to last year’s Get Out.
In Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek is in the lead role as a Mexican immigrant who winds up as an unexpected guest at an elegant, intimate dinner party at a mansion in Southern California.
She’s not exactly uninvited. Her well-meaning host, Kathy (Connie Britton in a sympathetic role), invites her to stay for the dinner her husband has organised for business colleagues. This happens when Beatriz finds herself stranded at their home with a car that won’t start.
As the other couples arrive, Beatriz looks predictably out of place in her jeans and shirt—it was her choice to remain dressed in her own clothes. She’s even at one point predictably mistaken for the help.
Earlier in the day, she was at the cancer treatment centre where she works as a holistic health therapist. Beatriz and Kathy had become and remained friends when Kathy’s teenage daughter needed cancer treatment.
This particular evening, it’s Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who is guest of honour. He’s the man. A real estate development mogul, he is an obnoxious, odious loud-mouth, but everyone defers to him because he holds the purse strings for the deal that’s on the verge of being done.
Beatriz keeps asking if she knows him from somewhere, and there is a strong hint that some of Doug’s business activities, in Mexico at least, have been outside the law and morally reprehensible.
Jeana (Amy Landecker), who is wife number three, does her best to smooth over the dozens of offences—large and small— that Doug causes in conversation.
I was expecting Chloe Sevigny to have more impact in her role as one of the wives, but not on this occasion. Instead, the floor belongs to Beatriz who loses her cool when Doug boasts about a forthcoming holiday in South Africa, where he will go big game hunting again. He passes an image around on his mobile of the magnificent creature he shot on the last occasion. ‘Disgusting’, Beatriz shouts and throws the phone back at him.
In an instant, Doug is not just a clone of Trump, but a reminder of that millionaire dentist from Minnesota who paid big money last year to shoot an African lion, to universal dismay.
The role of a woman of principle who confronts attitudes she finds disreputable and appalling, was created with Hayek in mind by writer Mike White, who has written a few comedies, including School of Rock. There is some incisive writing here from White, especially for the characters of Doug, Beatriz, Kathy and Jeana.
Beatriz at Dinner is described by some as a comedy-drama. I didn’t see much comedy, except the rueful, sardonic kind in this modest, earnest and disturbing film, directed by Puerto-Rican born American Miguel Arteta.
It’s well known in film and in life, that the pleasant, planned dinner party, can bring heads together in a monumental clash of minds. At loggerheads, anticipated and unanticipated.
The conversation at this dinner is urgently worth having, but the schism between characters only deepens. The declarations of views lead nowhere, except into a wider divide, leaving worlds as far apart as ever.
Beatriz at Dinner had the potential to extend and expand the important debate on our responsibilities to others and the world we share, but it winds up a missed opportunity.
Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM