Beatriz at Dinner is very much a film of the moment, which is a polite way of saying that it’s not very good but it does accurately reflect the way that a lot of people are feeling right now. I imagine that’s the main reason why it’s received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even cited, by the National Board of Review, as one of the top ten independent films of the year. By 2019, I doubt anyone will even remember that this film exists.
Salma Hayek plays the title character. Beatriz is a massage therapist in Los Angeles. She’s not having a good day. Not only has her neighbor killed one of her goats but, while she’s at the house of one of her wealthy clients, her car suddenly won’t start. Beatriz says that she can call a friend to come pick her up but that he won’t be able to show up until after he gets off work. Beatriz’s client, Kathy (Connie Britton), invites Beatriz to stay for dinner.
Kathy is a familiar type. She’s the rich, privileged white woman who probably brags about how nice she is to her maid. Kathy’s husband (David Warshofsky) may not want Beatriz to stay but Kathy feels that they owe a debt to Beatriz because Beatriz helped their daughter recover after she was treated for cancer. Kathy not only insists that Beatriz stay for dinner but she also asks Beatriz to not only stay the night but also to sing everyone a song after they’ve eaten. As Kathy’s rich friends start to arrive for dinner, Kathy treats Beatriz like a prop, blithely unaware of how awkward Beatriz feels around her guests.
The main dinner guest is an arrogantly vulgar businessman named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Doug is best known for building hotels, forcing poor people off of their land, and constantly bragging about how rich and famous he is. He is even working on a memoir. (In perhaps Beatriz at Dinner‘s only show of restraint, the film does not make him a reality show host.) The first time that Doug sees Beatriz, he assumes that she must be a maid and asks her to get him a drink. When Beatriz later launches into a monologue about her childhood in Mexico and how she first came to the United States, Doug interrupts to boorishly ask if she came legally. Whenever anyone admonishes Doug for being rude, he merely laughs it off and says that he doesn’t mean to be offensive. He’s just telling it like it is.
Hmmmm … I wonder who Doug is supposed to be a stand-in for?
Anyway, this all sounds promising enough but Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t really do much with this material. Just as with his previous overrated film, Cedar Rapids, director Miguel Arteta fails to generate any sort of narrative momentum. Basically, the entire film is Doug saying something offensive and Beatriz glaring at him. We keep waiting for Beatriz to blow up but when she finally does start to talk back to Doug, it’s anti-climatic. The dialogue suddenly starts to feel forced and unnatural. Doug goes from being a disturbingly credible vulgarian to just being another comic book villain and, as a result, Beatriz’s speech feels almost as empty as an angry thread of tweets. When Beatriz does take more concrete action towards Doug, the film ruins it all with an obvious twist that is nowhere close to being as profound as the filmmakers seem to think it is. If Beatriz at Dinner was truly as revolutionary as it seems to think it is, that twist wouldn’t be there.
(Buñuel and Godard, who are both obvious influences on Beatriz at Dinner, would dismiss the twist as bourgeois bullshit.)
In the lead role, Salma Hayek is good but not great. There’s really not much depth to Beatriz as a character. She functions more as a symbol than as a human being. (In many ways, the filmmakers treats Beatriz much in the same way that Kathy treats Beatriz, as a prop.) John Lithgow steals the entire movie, giving the only performance that actually shows a hint of real and dangerous charisma. As hateful a person as Doug may be, he is truthful about one thing. He is the only character in the movie who always says exactly what is on his mind. Lithgow plays Doug as not just a vulgarian but also as someone who is proud of being vulgar and who specifically goes out of his way to see how offensive he can be. At times, Lithgow is the only member of the cast actually bringing any life to this stifling bore of a film. Unfortunately, Lithgow is so good that he overpowers the rest of the cast. When Beatriz rebukes him, Hayek delivers her lines with a heartfelt fury that briefly threatens to rescue the movie from Doug but all Lithgow has to do is smirk and just like that, he’s taken the movie back from her.
For a lot of people, the appeal of Beatriz at Dinner is that Doug is obviously meant to be Trump and Beatriz says everything that they wish they could say. They see Beatriz’s frustration and anger and they immediately recognize it as being their frustration and anger. That’s a perfectly legitimate and understandable reaction but that doesn’t necessarily make Beatriz at Dinner a good film. It just makes it a film of the moment.