Dinner parties have long since been the setting for all sorts of cinematic hijinks – from La Grande Bouffe to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the combination of food and conversation has always proven rich pickings for filmmakers. In Beatriz at Dinner, Miguel Arteta and Mike White take on the sub-genre to provide a moving, if not slightly muddled, comedy.
Beatriz at Dinner feels inherently different from director Arteta’s more recent comedies – it’s slow and wry, the jokes often stemming from the irony or sheer absurdity of a scene. White’s script is one of his most accomplished since The Good Girl, though falls short of greatness, particularly in the last third. There’s a sense of energy being built up and failing to release, leaving the audience waiting for a punchline that never comes. In some respects, that makes it more honest – in real life, there are no easy fixes. One dinner party will not convince a room full of ardent corporate elites the errors of their ways.
Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Beatriz is captivating – she’s vulnerable yet quietly powerful, other-worldly and sensitive, and despite her predisposition to stray into preacher territory, never becomes irritating because of it. Beatriz is an old soul who seems at odds with the state of the world, yearning for the life she was forced to leave behind in Mexico. Like the earth she loves and seeks to protect, she’s fragile and downtrodden. She unravels at dinner as she’s confronted with the misanthropic greed of the American elite.
Hayek is joined by a stellar supporting cast in John Lithgow, Connie Brittain, Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny. These are the WASPs that Beatriz dines with, polite and white and utterly vacuous, patronising to Beatriz and absorbed in their own delusions of grandeur. They exchange gossip about a troubled teenage celebrity and look upon their husbands with fond disdain. Production on Beatriz at Dinner began before Donald Trump was elected President, but there’s definitely something of him in Lithgow’s character, a peacocking hotel mogul named Doug Strutt, concerned only with the pursuit of his best interests, and casually racist towards Beatriz throughout the evening.
Beatriz is reminiscent of Hamlet’s Ophelia, weighed down the strain of living a life she can’t reconcile with what’s in her head. California looks beautiful, in the manicured Stepford way it so often does in cinema, but as you squint into the sunset over the ocean, you start to notice the cracks – driving down the highway, Beatriz looks out to vast chimneys churning smog into the sky. It’s a film for the post-Trump world, particularly poignant in light of POTUS’s current climate change controversy. And Beatriz? She deserves better than she gets – but that’s sort of the point.