‘Beatriz At Dinner’ Sets Up An Interesting Premise Then Fizzles Out

We originally reviewed Beatriz at Dinner, at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2017. With the film opening in limited release this weekend, here’s the review again.

Have you ever seen a movie where a dream sequence teases a much more tantalizing story, only to say “just kidding” at the end and return the film to a much duller narrative? That’s true of Beatriz At Dinner, which sets up an interesting conflict but doesn’t do anything with it. Too timid to make any big story choices, it instead ends with a sort of magical realist copout, presumably in the hopes that we’ll apply our own metaphor. Aw, man, I didn’t realize this party was BYOM.

Directed by Miguel Arteta from a script by his frequent collaborator Mike White (past projects have included Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl), Beatriz seems to have all the tools for success. Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, an Earth mother Mexican immigrant who practices reiki, massage, and new age nutrition therapy for her clientele of rich Angelenos. Her car breaks down during a house call with Cathy (Connie Britton), who invites her to stay for dinner, even though it’s a business dinner for her husband, celebrating his partner, Alex (Jay Duplass) pushing through approval for a development deal with bigwig Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Which means the Bill Brassky crew of SoCal industrialists clink scotch glasses over toasts to rapacious capitalism while Beatriz regales them with her loopy stories about finding her career calling in the eye of an abused octopus (a very funny story, incidentally).

Pitting Salma Hayek’s vegetarian Earth mother who daydreams about her recently departed pet goat against John Lithgow’s greedy developer who shows off the rhino hunting photos on his iPhone is pretty on the nose, but Beatriz offers enough nuance and believable interactions that it doesn’t quite turn into Avatar 2. One thing I’ve always admired about Arteta (who directed two wildly underrated movies I love, Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids) is his unforced comedy. He always treats his scenes like real situations, and there’s never that joke metronome where you can feel him scrambling for something funny every 30 seconds. He understands that a little silence between jokes isn’t always an expression of boredom. Some of his scenes are funny, some aren’t, like life.

Likewise, Beatriz doesn’t exactly depict its protagonista as the noble savage, Avatar-style. Lithgow’s rhino-murdering robber baron is the villain, obviously, but the film endows him with a certain amount of personal charm. He’s deplorable but not the worst guy to have a drink with. Beatriz, meanwhile, despite her deeply felt emotions, is frequently full of a different kind of shit, and kind of a downer, given as she is to pronouncements like “the Earth needs old souls because she’s very sick.”

Yet when she tells Strutt “all of your pleasures are built on other people’s pain,” you know she’s right — the voice of reason come to ruin the party, in a literal sense. She’s willing to face the reality the robber barons’ basic bitch wives (played by Britton, Chloe Sevigny, and Amy Landecker) try to distract themselves from, with massages and celebrity blogs (one hilarious scene involves them passing around the leaked photos of a starlet’s vagina).

There’s something here, but Beatriz doesn’t do anything with it. As much as I appreciate Arteta’s unforced comedy, the script seems to be attempting to resist the easy creative choices, but in so doing feels as if it’s resisting any creative choices. And as long as we’re resisting easy choices, maybe don’t do greedy developer vs. Earth mother? And maybe don’t have the obvious scene where he mistakes her for the help? Beatriz attempts a poetic ending, but just ends up feeling unfinished. It feels like it wants credit for subtlety, but up until the very end, that’s not the movie we were watching. Nor should it be. If you want to make a political allegory in 2017, you should strive for more than “gotta hear both sides.” And if both sides are going to be kind of straw men, well, do something with them.