Beatriz at Dinner a film by Miguel Arteta. With Salma Hayak, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloe Sevigny. ***1/2
“Why have an ending that negates everything that happened in the whole movie?” my wife said to me as we left Beatriz at Dinner? I’d been troubled by the ending, though I wouldn’t have put so strongly. She put her finger on the central problem.
Beatriz is being touted as the “first great movie of the Trump era,” an odd remark when you think of it (when exactly did the Trump era begin? When—God help us all—will it end?), but that seems to be a kind of code that says: all you Trump haters will love it. It’s primarily Trump haters who will see it. (I know that because one of the Trailers was for the new Inconvenient Truth movie with Al Gore. The audience actually applauded at the end of the trailer, something I can’t recall ever happening before. There was a comfort dog sitting beside my wife and me—are comfort dogs another sign of the Trump era? We can’t go to the movies without a dog?—and he barked in approval. Even our dogs are progressive.)
Beatriz (Salma Hayak) is a healer. She has dogs and goats (though the goats are illegal in her California neighborhood). She works primarily at a cancer treatment center, though she takes jobs elsewhere. We see her in the morning as she heads off to work—her car is a little slow turning over, a piece of foreshadowing—and she has both a fat little Buddha and a Virgin of Guadalupe on the dash. She has the spiritual bases covered.
She spends the morning at the cancer treatment facility, then heads off to a gated community in Pasadena to take care of one of her high-priced clients, a woman who got to know Beatriz when her own daughter, who has just gone off to college, was being treated for cancer. Cathy (Connie Britton) is the wife of a wealthy businessman, and is getting a massage before she hosts some people who are celebrating the closing of a big business deal. She’s wealthy but genuinely cares for Beatriz, and when her car won’t start (“Did you call Triple A?” Cathy says, another sign of how out to lunch she is), and the friend that is going to come rescue her can’t come right away, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner. She sincerely believes that will be all right, even though the guest of honor is a high-powered businessman and world-class asshole by the name of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). She trusts that Beatriz will know how to behave.
Not since Katharine Houghton showed up with Sidney Poitier have we faced such a tough dining situation.
I admit that I wanted to see “the first great film of the Trump era,” but was afraid it would devolve into the kind of thing I see on Facebook—or the New York Times op-ed page—every day. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t hash over the endless political arguments we’ve heard a million times. It does pit a woman who is primarily a healer, who sees that our world and many of its inhabitants are sick, with a man who doesn’t care a rat’s ass, who’s out to get what he can and doesn’t care who he tramples on. He didn’t develop the hotel that destroyed the little Mexican town where Beatriz lived, so that she had to move to this country, but he developed hotels just like it in other places, undoubtedly with the same results. He says he’s creating jobs and helping people; she says he’s despoiling the earth and ruining people’s lives. There’s not much in-between.
Beatriz doesn’t, we’re happy to see, know how to hold her tongue, or maybe she’s just had too much wine (never have I counted the drinks in a movie with more trepidation). When she hears about the hotels the man has developed, and especially the big game he’s hunted in Africa, she can’t hold back. She almost ruins the evening, except that nothing could ruin the kind of big deal these men have just closed. They don’t care about the hired help anyway.
What I especially appreciated was the moments when they came together a little, when Beatriz spent some time massaging Doug’s shoulders—he was in ecstasy, but she could feel his toxicity—when she sang a song to the group at the end of the evening, even, for me, when Doug was describing the rush that he got hunting big game in Africa. I sympathized with everything he said, and imagine Beatriz might have too, up to the point where he killed the animal. I find that cruel and inexplicable. If someone is killing game in order to feed their family, I don’t have a problem, even if they wouldn’t have to do it. But to kill for the sake of killing, or because it gives you some primal thrill: I don’t get that. I don’t get it in Hemingway any more than in Doug Strutt.
Then there’s the ending. There are actually several endings (I want to talk about this subject without giving too much away); it’s not The French Lieutenant’s Woman but it comes close. There are various places where it could have ended well. I kept saying to myself, end it there. No. End it there. The movie was short as it was, listed at 82 minutes. It wasn’t a matter of dragging it out.
But the way it does end is deeply unsatisfying. I can’t escape the feeling that the filmmakers were gauging the audience they knew they would attract, then choosing the ending they thought would wring their hearts the most. It’s sentimental in the sense that it’s playing on cheap emotion. But it’s fundamentally untrue to the character it portrays.
Which brings me back to the Trump era. I live in a famously progressive neighborhood, where the Impeach Trump signs appeared as soon as the election was over, and everybody was talking about how Trump was going to implode or resign within the first few months. Everybody wants some magic solution to this problem, a deus ex machina that will descend from the skies and make everything better, but that is a Democratic wet dream. The real problem is that people voted for this man, and did so because they had concerns that weren’t being addressed. There’s a positive answer to the problems we’re facing; there has to be. But we’re going to arrive at it when the two sides learn to see each other, and talk to each other. It’s not a matter of cheering for your side, or getting your dog to bark. It’s a matter of listening, and honestly responding.
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