My first reaction to Beatriz at Dinner was that it over-exaggerated the callousness of its white dinner guests with whom Salma Mayek’s Beatriz finds herself dining in a lavish, Newport Beach home. Their lack of self awareness is staggering and their condescension and humiliation of Beatriz is appalling. Surely, I thought, there can’t actually be anyone like this in real life, so sheltered and privileged that treat anyone with a hint of non-white skin or with a foreign accent with so much cruelty and humiliation.
But then I remember back to my Greek life days and youth group days, and my mom’s own experience working at a fancy private school, and even just our encounters with wealthier residents of New York and Los Angeles. And yep, those people totally exist, white and wealthy, completely consumed with their own lives, who may not explicitly say anything racist themselves but immediately look down at anyone who is, in fact, of a different race. They may not make up the majority of wealthy or affluent people, as for every school story my mom had about a rude, rich parent, she had another about a wealthy parent who was kind and caring. But the problem is is that these people have power and influence, and their apathy towards everyone who isn’t like them can ravage and destroy communities with ease.
That’s what makes watching Beatriz at Dinner such a frustrating movie-going experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful, wonderful film, but you’re just hoping that Beatriz will come out on top and that these dinner guests will change their mindsets and just take her seriously and actually listen and not poke fun. You sit there just waiting for that moment where the guests will realize the error of their ways and they’ll all come together and hug and apologize and shed tears and give some semblance that there might be hope in the world for wealthy, selfish people to change and get better.
But every time there’s a failure to connect or even just a lack of an attempt to understand, you sit there fuming in your seat, occasionally laughing at the funnier moments, but keep growing more and more pissed off, eventually leaving the theater feeling as if someone said something personally offensive to you and didn’t apologize and you didn’t get the chance to rectify or redeem yourself. You will probably feel worse about the world when you leave the film than you did when you went going in. But that’s also kind of the point.
Luckily through this frustrating dinner, we still have Beatriz, a wonderful, spiritual woman who works as a massage therapist. She’s very in tune with energies and healing and has a good heart, having to make a long commute from Altadena to work at a health clinic for terminally ill patients in Santa Monica (if you aren’t familiar with LA geography, this is about an hour drive without traffic, maybe 90 or more minutes with traffic.) But Beatriz also has wealthier clients too, most notably Kathy (Connie Britton) who lives in a lavish mansion in Newport Beach (which from Altadena is 90 minutes without traffic, but come on, there’s always traffic). After Beatriz finishes a session with Kathy, she discovers her car won’t start, and Kathy offers her to stay for her and her husband Grant’s dinner party that night.
Grant (David Warshofsky) does something in real estate or land development and makes a lot of money off of it. The guests at the dinner are some of Grant’s business partners, a budding young land guru named Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) and Doug Strutt, a well-known, lavishly wealthy land developer played by John Lithgow and his younger trophy wife Jeana (Amy Landecker). Beatriz breaks a few social norms by immediately hugging Alex and Shannon when she first meets them, and the couple gets a quick laugh when Beatriz starts talking about her life and career. Shannon is a bit more conversational with Beatriz but still clearly views her as a lesser. Kathy is the one who is most welcoming to Beatriz, actually trying to include her in conversations with the guests. But every time Kathy talks about Beatriz, it doesn’t feel like she’s talking about another adult or even a child, but more of a pet who can do funny tricks (“she’s so good at getting me relaxed, and she’s really great at fetch too!”)
But it’s Beatriz’s interactions with Doug Strutt that serve as the dramatic center of the movie. Beatriz can’t shake the feeling she knows Doug from somewhere. Even when the other characters comment that he’s famous, she feels like she has a deeper connection with him, that she actually knows him personally. Beatriz starts to put the pieces together and discovers that Doug actually has a nefarious past, and confronts him at dinner over his actions and viewpoints.
Clearly, Doug Strutt is supposed to be a Donald Trump-archetype, although Doug is much more personable and can actually speak in coherent sentences. I’m not sure the particular timeline of when director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White crafted this story, if it was before Trump became the eventual GOP nominee, but it was definitely before he was actually elected president and his actions against people like Beatriz when he started his term. So you definitely can’t say that Beatriz at Dinner was made during the travel ban or the mass wave of deportations in 2017, even though it lines up quite nicely (especially with Doug’s comments of whether Beatriz came to the U.S. legally.) Regardless, Doug here serves as our Don, the living embodiment of the 1%, unconcerned if his hotels and shopping malls will displace poor communities or endangered animals, the absolute right to nearly every left-leaning cause you could possibly think of.
Beatriz’s criticism of Doug’s actions, and really the silent apathy and mockery from the other guests will be heavy-handed to some. And there definitely is a lot to support that viewpoint: except for Kathy, the characters really are just written as caricatures of ignorant, wealthy people. There’s no attempt on their part to seem not-racist, like the dad in the wonderful horror film Get Out when he said he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. And there’s really no deeper dive in Doug’s personal background or why he is just such a terrible person, no backstory of him growing up poor but striking it rich and thinking any poor person who hasn’t done the same is lazy or unimportant or anything like that. The dinner guests are simply defined by their callousness and nothing more, and that can be a little bit unsatisfying for a film that’s so passionate about being honest social commentary.
Beatriz herself too can be almost cartoonish, so into new wave healing and being able to feel other people’s pain that you might too laugh at her naivety and earnestness. But at least we get a sense that despite her kind spirit, Beatriz isn’t just a reincarnation of Mother Teresa in a masseuse uniform. She makes mistakes, gets drunk too easily and doesn’t realize that not everyone is on the same frequency as her mother earthly wavelength. She isn’t perfect, but she’s still pretty great.
But it is important to remember that these types of people, successful and totally consumed with themselves with no consideration for the world around them, do definitely exist. That for every group of wealthy, white individuals who think that just because they voted for Obama, in turn, makes them good people, there’s definitely at least one wealthy individual who doesn’t give a shit at all if they’re a good person or not, they’re just in it for them. It may not be the most well-cooked social commentary a film has ever served up, but it definitely is filling enough to make you want seconds and then some.