The class divide between the poor and the rich isn’t a subject unexplored in American cinema, and yet, it takes on a new and darker implication in Miguel Arteta’s third collaboration with Mike White, Beatriz at Dinner. The eponymous Beatriz, a holistic medical practitioner, is played with intense empathy by Salma Hayek–long overdue for a serious role post-Sausage Party. A sort of Mowgli meets Snow White type in her love of animals, the film opens with Beatriz awakening to the sound of her goat–penned up in a makeshift cage by her bed–bleating as her dogs urgently look over at it. Worried over the noise it’s making, Beatriz does her best to silence it. In a scene soon after, we see her praying outside with candles.
As we watch her go about her day, heading to a healing treatment center in Santa Monica, the aura of martyrdom and self-sacrifice that emanates from her very core recalls another character in the Arteta/White annals: Justine Last in The Good Girl. Though Justine is, of course, obviously more selfish and dissatisfied with her work, the disappointment and sadness that radiates from both is something only Arteta and White could team up to create. And, like Jennifer Aniston playing Justine, Hayek is getting plenty of buzz about her controlled, staid performance.
The pain on her face remains a constant throughout, occasionally stoked further by too much probing from her presumably only wealthy client, Cathy (Connie Britton), who lives all the way out in Newport Beach and became a devotee of Beatriz’s gift for healing after she helped her daughter, Tara, overcome Hodgkin disease. Now that Tara is away at college, however, there seems to be little common thread between Beatriz and Cathy, who whitely touts how great it is that Tara is being exposed to so many different “groups” like gays and trans people. Beatriz nods along as she massages her, her mind clearly lost in thought. When Cathy questions what’s going on, Beatriz rehashes the story of how her neighbor killed her goat. Horrified in that sort of faux sympathetic way that only rich white people can be, Cathy feigns syrupy compassion.
This compassion is indeed put to the ultimate test when Beatriz informs Cathy that her car won’t start and she’ll need to wait for her friend from Altadena to come and fix it. Cathy then semi-offers her a dinner invitation by telling her to wait while she double checks with her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), that they can make more room at the table. Grant, naturally, balks at the idea, preferring that she instead sits and eats alone in the TV room, but is worn down by Cathy’s insistence that Beatriz is practically like family. Grant’s concerns over impressing real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow, quintessentially energetic in his stoicism) far outweigh his desire to repay Beatriz for anything she might have done for them in the past.
His apprehensions, to be sure, prove correct as the awkwardness almost immediately ensues when the first guests, Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloë Sevigny, far underused in this particular movie), arrive. At first watching them from afar–literally from the outside looking in–Beatriz then approaches both of them to give each one an embrace, an act overtly out of their waspy wheelhouse. Alex is, evidently, the reason for the gathering, as it is he who has just pushed through the legislation that will allow for Doug and Grant to build a massive shopping center.
Doug, in his prototypical alpha male fashion, shows up to the house last with his third wife (as he’s sure to specify later at the table), Jeana (Amy Landecker–it would have been too weird for her to play Alex’s wife as she and Jay Duplass already act as brother and sister on Transparent). As the trio of each coupled up gender gets caught up in each other, Beatriz is soon lost out of the fold, standing apart from everyone else for an egregious amount of time before Cathy finally sees fit to officially introduce her. The torment Beatriz exudes is, in part, what keeps her instinctively standing back from the others, as though not wanting to absorb any further stinging from this group of highly self-involved posing as caring people. Nonetheless, she remains nothing but candid and earnest in her interactions, telling them all of the first time she knew she had empathic, healing abilities when her father took a white octopus out of the water and started kicking it like a soccer ball and then told her to do the same. As she picked it up out of concern, she said she felt an electric shock, as though absorbing all of the creature’s pain.
Regardless of how touching this story is or might be to anyone with a normal pulse, those at the dinner table appear largely uncomfortable and ready to change the subject, as though experiencing any form of real emotion would be too much. Plus, Doug’s narcissism and everyone else’s pandering to it doesn’t leave much room for anything resembling a meaningful conversation.
As the evening progresses, Beatriz drinks more and more (her indulgence in white wine being such a rarity), loosening her up enough to take social liberties where she normally wouldn’t. It is in this way that she finds the courage to accuse Doug of being the same developer who ruined her entire village with his hotel. Later, however, she finds that it’s through another incident that she recognizes him.
Reaching her breaking point after Doug and Jeana discuss their upcoming trip to South Africa and Doug’s lust for hunting and killing big game, Beatriz is summarily “sent to her room” (her friend from Altadena now won’t be able to make it until the next morning) upon pelting him with his own phone.
But rather than sequester herself as she know decorum dictates, she decides to go back downstairs and further elaborate on her anger. As a person who deals daily with the struggle of taking on the very palpable threat to life, Beatriz knows it is far more challenging to heal something than to destroy it. In fact, it can take not only a lifetime, but several generations to fix something that’s been broken. That Doug can’t see this, that he garners his “pleasure from other people’s pain” is sickening to Beatriz, who no longer knows if she has the fight within her to take men like him on. “All tears flow from the same source” that is him, after all–and any man like him with his level of power.
Welcome to the new comedy of manners in the era of Trump. To put it lightly, it’s less polite than any film in the genre before it, and features a far more overt nod to Virginia Woolf.