Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a selfless healer barely making ends meet. When her vehicle breaks down at the home of a wealthy client, Kathy (Connie Britton), she is invited to stay the evening. Kathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are holding a dinner party with several rich associates. One of the guests, Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow) turns out to be as insensitive as he is wealthy, which is to say a lot. The plot thickens when Beatriz begins to suspect Strutt may have been the developer who wrecked her home town back in Mexico, thus scattering her family and ultimately triggering her own immigration into the United States. Is she right about Strutt? And if so, what will she do about it?
…especially after she’s had another glass of wine?
I’m supposed to like Beatriz at Dinner. This film has liberal politics written all over it. It expresses views much like my own, and it raises concerns I take very seriously. So, why don’ I Like it?
First and foremost, I don’t like being pandered to. Beatriz might be good politics (which is debatable), but it’s terrible story-telling. The film contains one and only one sympathetic character, Beatriz. The rest of the central characters in this film are there to be despised. Virtually every line they utter is offered, not to help us understand their point of view, but to give us another reason to hate them. Even Kathy’s kind invitation is riddled with hypocrisy. It is less an expression of generosity or friendship than a kind of pretense, one soon blown apart by events unfolding over the course of the evening. Her feigned friendship notwithstanding, Kathy isn’t really prepared to treat Beatriz as an equal, a fact driven home time and again during the film. The other characters never even come that far. They are simply aweful, from beginning to end.
It’s not just that the characters in this film are one dimensional. The entire story is one-dimensional, showing us only enough of the rich white characters to know that they are contemptible. I don’t need to think of capitalists as terrible people to oppose their impact on the global economy. My concerns over the issue do not depend on moral caricatures, and I’m not at all interested in promoting such caricatures, not even in the furtherance of a liberal agenda.
It’s not that I find anything implausible in the notion that an immigrant woman struggling to pay her own bills could be more thoughtful and interesting than a group of rich white people. I just don’t need to be reminded that that is how I am supposed to feel about these characters with virtually every line of the film. Good characters have depth, even those we might regard as villains. They surprise us. They present us with novel thoughts and feelings. This just doesn’t happen at the dinner Beatriz attends. She is decent, perhaps even a little odd at times. The rest are uniformly terrible people, a fact driven home with virtually everything they do.
It would have been nice if Lithgow’s character actually had an insight or two, perhaps even a trace of moral character however flawed it might have been. Instead, he is relentlessly crass, unfeeling, and utterly incapable of compassion. I want to think of this character as over-the-top and completely unrealistic. But of course, the current President of the United States appears to have been written with same pen. So, I guess we can’t dismiss him as completely unrealistic.
Likely, the comparison with Trump is the real point of Lithgow’s character, but if he is Trump, then this is why the movie fails. It fails because its villain isn’t really at all interesting. Just like Trump, Strutt isn’t impressive in any way. He doesn’t have any style. He’s just an ass with more power than he deserves or really knows what to do with. Such people may exist in real life (and apparently they do), but they don’t make particularly good stories. Whether Strutt is an straw man or an accurate portrayal of mindset we can encounter in real life, he is a consistent disappointment. We engage him through Beatriz only to find that there is nothing to him, that there is no there there in his personality. The man has power and wealth and little else to say for himself or his life choices. He’s a bit like the weather, something to be survived, not reasoned with.
But can one survive Strutt? If a men with that kind of power cannot be reasoned with, then how are we to survive them? This I think is the question trying to make its way through the film to its audience. It is an interesting question. Suffice to say that I am not impressed with the film’s own answer to this question.
Strutt poses a threat to humanity itself, at least in the abstract, and more immediately to Beatriz. It isn’t just that his development projects wreck communities and threaten endangered species. Rather, he represents the worst in modern capitalism, complete with all its current threats to the environment and life as we know it. This is clearly how Beatriz sees him. Strutt himself seems aware enough that his actions create hardship for others, but he also regards the decline of life on this planet as a natural process, one which will occur with or without him. Everything is dying, or so he tells Beatriz. There is nothing to be done about it, so one ought to enjoy himself so long as he can. This, he suggests, is precisely what Beatriz herself should do. With that, Strutt reveals the depths of his own depravity and the conflict between Strutt and Beatriz comes to symbolize a conflict between nihilism and the value of life itself.
It’s in this last twist that Beatriz at Dinner nearly becomes interesting. It is established early on that she has a tremendous sense of empathy. She can feel others’ pain. So Strutt’s complete disregard for every living thing thus poses a kind of existential threat to her. She can feel the harm he causes in others, and if there is nothing she can do about it, then what use are her own efforts? She cannot accept Strutt’s crass hedonism as a way of life, but if he and others like him are setting the course of history, then her own values demand a confrontation.
To heal the world, must Beatriz not defeat people like Strutt, and if he (and others like him) cannot be persuaded, is there any alternative but violence? To fall short of that, as the film seems to suggest, is to accept the end of life as we know it. It is to give up on life itself. At least that seems to be the conclusion Beatriz draws from her encounter with Strutt.
Thus we are left with an ending every bit as dismal as the central villain of the film.