Salma Hayek plays a man’s nightmare in a new movie that hits a little close to home under the current administration.
Beatriz isn’t supposed to be here. In Beatriz at Dinner, directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, HBO’s Enlightened) Salma Hayek plays a woman in a bind: Her already rough week — one of the two goats she owns loudly bleated to the dismay of a violent neighbor, who strangled it to death — gets even worse when, after schlepping through hours of traffic to meet a rich client, her jalopy of a car won’t start. Relative isolation of the mansion where Beatriz, a healer and massage therapist, is now stranded forces her client to play the gracious host: Of course, Beatriz should stay for dinner!
Theoretically simplifying matters is the dynamic between Beatriz and Cathy (Connie Britton), the client in question. Cathy’s daughter, Tara, is a cancer survivor; Cathy credits Beatriz’s alternative healing with Tara’s astounding recovery. Theirs is a transaction — not just of money for labor but of fear for comfort — that bloomed into something approaching friendship, though it’s readily apparent the two have never actually socialized together.
Complicating things is that this isn’t just any dinner Beatriz would be crashing. Cathy’s husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), is a fast-rising company man who needs to wine, dine, and thoroughly impress his stupidly rich magnate of a boss, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). His last name, like a certain Commander-in-Chief, is awfully on the nose for his attitude and bearing. When dinner begins, he takes the head of the table, lording over Grant and Cathy’s other guests: Doug’s much-younger third wife (Amy Landecker), a striving, though rising, star in his employ (Jay Duplass) and his eager-to-rise-with-him wife (Chloe Sevigny).
Part of what makes the dinner party that ensues so compelling is how — save for the Trumpian tycoon who brags about owning, but not personally constructing, the hotels upon which is enormous wealth was built — the dinner guests and hosts feel completely real. The calculated gushing over the gorgeous home. The nervous guy angling to impress the boss trying to soothe his anxiety by drinking (too much). The inevitable division of the gathering by gender, as if the wives of men who work together have anything in common other than the fact that their husbands are co-workers.
Cathy’s behavior is the most familiar, that of a well-intentioned woman who thinks of herself as a good person but also thinks of other people as props for her performance of being a good person. Her conundrum is relatable, even though her financial circumstances are far from it: Who among us has not suffered an insufferable colleague of a loved one at an office holiday party, a Thanksgiving dinner, a wedding? Meanwhile, Cathy’s admiration for Beatriz is at once totally plausible — calling someone a lifesaver isn’t irrational when you believe she was an integral part of your daughter’s recovery from cancer — and an annoying performance, the kind of calculated awe of a white, Western woman admiring alternative medicine as practiced by a Latina. Her acts of kindness are in a nebulous ethical space: Does she offer Beatriz a change of clothes because she thinks Beatriz will be uncomfortable in her too-casual attire, or because she is embarrassed by something Beatriz is totally unbothered by? (Beatriz opts to leave on her ill-fitting button-down and slacks; later, Doug mistakes Beatriz for a member of the staff and asks her to freshen up his drink.)
The bigger conflict of the movie plays out between two equally polarizing and, at times, off-putting extremes. On one side is the heartless, ruthless capitalist, who is conveniently, casually racist and also enjoys such despicable pastimes as big-game hunting, minting money off the suffering of others, and blathering on endlessly about himself. (He also asks Beatriz, as if inquiring about her alma mater, if she entered the country legally.) Opposite him is someone who takes social awkwardness to its illogical extreme, ignoring all conversational cues about when to maybe just not say the most aggressive thing she’s thinking because she’s just a surprise guest in someone else’s home. She refuses to allow idle chatter to flow back to an agreeable subject and is a willfully rude guest to a host who is just trying to not screw up her husband’s high-stakes business dinner.
The tension between Beatriz and Doug is ostensibly the axis of the movie, but it’s grating and predictable, with both characters bringing out the most irritating extremes in the other. Things grow more wearisome between them as Beatriz insists Doug must be someone she knows: the same hotel developer who razed a village she adored, promising jobs and prosperity but uprooting thousands. It’s not clear what point we’re supposed to get out of this parallel, unless it’s the most obvious one — that Doug is one of a multitude of corporate gluttons, more of a symbol than a person, and as a target for Beatriz’s righteous vengeance, he’ll suffice.
What’s far more interesting and complex is the relationship between Beatriz and Cathy, which mixes genuine affection and gratitude with suspicion, condescension, and exhaustion. Cathy is Beatriz’s employer, and the status gap obviously is something Cathy would prefer not to acknowledge; in insisting to her husband that Beatriz stay for dinner, she refers to the healer as “a friend of the family.” For someone who lives such an extravagant life — a woman who needs to destress with a massage before this dinner which a hired staff will prepare, serve, and clean — she is remarkably sympathetic. (Much of this is surely do to Britton’s winning nature; it is very, very hard not to root for this woman.) Her gratitude for Beatriz is hard-won and deeply felt. But her treatment of Beatriz is as much about making Beatriz feel good as it is about making herself feel good for being the kind of person who cares about someone like Beatriz.
In an interview with Nylon, Britton described her character’s behavior as reflective of “many of our sincere desires to help and to be a good citizen, but then we get to see her limitations. She lives a very comfortable life, and she is limited by her own comfort. Being friends with Beatriz is her version of looking outside of herself. Her relationship with Beatriz is very little about Beatriz, and mostly about Cathy.”
Hayek is riveting and so far from the trope she often gets trapped in (and, as she did on 30 Rock, occasionally subverts): Instead of playing an alluring sexpot — a male fantasy — she’s almost childlike in her mannerisms and unyielding moral purity. She’s totally disinterested in appealing to others, which makes her a man’s nightmare, and she has no love interest to speak of but adores her goats so much she lets them sleep in her bedroom. It is her disdain for all social graces, as much as her simmering hatred of Doug and everything he stands for, that makes her seem more than a little bit dangerous.
‘Beatriz at Dinner’ puts a Trumpian mogul and an immigrant at the same table was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.