It’s Tentpole Time in Cinemaville: that period between Memorial Day and Labor Day when the big Hollywood studios haul out their bloated-budget action flicks with a vengeance. The discriminating viewer may hope for a few worthy popcorn-chompers over the course of the summer, and endure a few lesser offerings of shiny eye candy for the sake of the air conditioning alone. But in a week like this one, when one has already seen 20 minutes’ worth of some previous installment of the Transformers franchise while on the treadmill at the gym and firmly concluded that one need never see one minute more before shuffling off this mortal coil, a bit of digging may be required.
Happily, this is also a time of year when art films that premiered at places like Sundance in late winter are trickling into the theaters, ready to reward one’s explorations. I’m going to save you a step of research by pointing you toward a little gem currently playing at Upstate Films, for which you will thank me. You may not like the ending. But you will have this movie stuck in your head long afterwards, for sure.
The film is titled Beatriz at Dinner, directed by Miguel Arteta from a screenplay by Mike White. It’s being touted as the movie industry’s first overt fictional shot over the bow of the Trump administration, although the Trumpesque character – little-people-stomping real estate magnate Doug Strutt, played with relish by the great John Lithgow – more closely resembles the guy before he took up politics as a hobby that requires less walking than golf. Lithgow is half the reason to see this movie, adding a twinkle of brash charm and perspicacity to an otherwise almost entirely repellent character.
The other half is Salma Hayek, who brings her whole thespian game – and it is formidable indeed – to the portrayal of the title character. Between these two actors, who are absolutely electric together, Beatriz at Dinner is lifted far above any peril of straying into cartoonish polemics. That’s despite the fact that Beatriz is the sort of Southern Californian as easy to lampoon as a boorish capitalist: She’s a masseuse and holistic healer who keeps goats in her Altadena bedroom and both a Virgen de Guadalupe medal and a Buddha bobblehead on the dashboard of her beat-up car (a car whose perpetual state of disrepair precipitates the story’s central crisis).
As I’ve had cause to lament often before (I take it a bit personally), Hollywood has a dreadful track record of trying to render hippies realistically, without condescension. This film is a welcome exception. Though an early montage informs us that she is adept at every esoteric alternative healing modality known to Californians, Hayek’s Beatriz is no airy-fairy New Age caricature. She is an Empath with a capital E and a calling, period. The actress doesn’t need to say much to convince us; it’s there in her centered carriage, her hyperfocused attentiveness. This is a born healer who knows instinctively what’s wrong with people, animals, the planet. An occasional magical-realist camera shot (the Pacific Ocean bleeding, for one) reinforces the impression, but they’re not laid on with a trowel. Hayek carries the weight of the world’s pain on her petite shoulders and still stands upright.
After a trying day at a cancer clinic, Beatriz makes a house call on a wealthy client, Cathy (Connie Britton), who wants a treatment before she throws an important dinner party to celebrate the closing of business deal in which her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) was a key player. We discover that Cathy imagines Beatriz to be “a member of the family” because of the close bond that the healer formed with her daughter, a Hodgkins survivor who is now away at college. But when Beatriz’s car won’t start after the massage session and Cathy impulsively invites her to stay at their fancy house in a Newport Beach gated community for dinner, Grant is not happy. He has the legendary Strutt to impress, and Beatriz is Mexican-born.
Predictably enough, the tycoon takes the last-minute guest for one of the household help, and things go downhill from there. As Beatriz is alternately ignored, talked over, belittled, badgered and eventually asked to leave, she remains utterly alert, clearly seeing through the vacuousness of these nouveau-riche types to their inner damage – even Strutt. Once a few glasses of wine have loosened her tongue, Beatriz ignores all cues to play the social game and gives them what-for, focusing always on the human costs of their callous business dealings. She cuts right to the chase, telling how her own family was displaced and scattered when a huge resort development project similar to the one being celebrated descended on a little town in Mexico that none of the rich folk can pronounce. The women present keep trying to steer Beatriz back to less awkward small talk, but she has Strutt in her crosshairs and won’t shut up. And, to Arteta and Lithgow’s credit, Strutt is intrigued by her gentle chutzpah.
Beyond the biting (and often very funny) satire, the possibility of real human connection hovers tantalizingly over this scene of social disaster, which belongs in any Top Ten list of movie dinners gone awry. But one healer, however gifted, cannot fix the whole world or stop the rampages of its worst human predators. Thus, audiences are stuck with a downbeat, vaguely symbolic ending when we might have wanted to march out of the cinema pumped for political battle. It’s almost as if the screenwriter and director felt that realism compelled them to end on a note of magical realism.
No matter. Go join Beatriz at Dinner anyway. The wounded world needs a whole lot more Empaths right about now.