Are you more of a hedonist or a healer? Which would you like to be? What would it take to get you to turn your back on whichever one you are? Those are the questions that Miguel Arteta’s thought-provoking 2017 film Beatriz at Dinner asks us to contemplate.
The story begins when massage therapist, Beatriz (Salma Hayek), is called out to her the mansion of her longtime client, Kathy (Connie Britton), to give her a massage before she hosts an important business dinner for her husband’s business. There is a special bond, we learn, between the two ladies because when Kathy’s son was stricken with cancer, it was Beatriz who helped save his life. So at the start of the film, Kathy loves Beatriz and Beatriz loves Kathy. Clearly, all cannot continue to go well.
A series of incidents with her car leave Beatriz stranded at the house unable to get home. No problem, Kathy tells her, she can sleep there and join them for dinner. They can do what needs to be done to get her home in the morning.
Beatriz is uncomfortable. Kathy, she knows, is from a different world. She fears she won’t fit in, she’ll get in the way, that she’ll be a bother. Nonsense, Kathy tells her, she’s one of the family, and that’s how she introduces her to her friends.
As Kathy’s friends and their husbands arrive we’re treated to shallow conversations about fashion, how hard the life of the rich and powerful is, and how minor things are treated as big disappointments. Needless to say, with this crowd Beatriz is a fish out of water.
The shark is Doug (John Lithgow). A mega-executive with a type-A personality, his method of life is eat or be eaten, take pleasure where you can for that’s all we have in this world. Very powerful and infamous, Doug is there to seal the deal between a profitable venture between him, Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), and Grant’s partner Alex (Jay Duplass).
The fun begins when Doug mistakes Beatriz for the help and loudly demands that he get her another drink. When he learns that she’s a guest, he barely recognizes it and continues to talk down to her. As the evening wears on Kathy tells them about Beatriz’s profession, how she saved their son’s life, and how she’s a special kind of person, a healer.
Beatriz plays the good guest. She honors Kathy, sings her praises, but she has a nagging feeling. She swears she knows Doug, but can’t remember how, but she has a feeling it’s not good. He baits her, knowing that she disapproves of him and in his confident-yet-unconfident superiority, he continues to treat her with a mixture of bemusement and fear.
As the evening wears on, Beatriz becomes more and more uncomfortable, due to the conversation, which hovers around Doug’s business exploits. The other men are eager to join his club, and the women appear content to prattle about their privileges. Every once in a while Kathy sings Beatriz’s praises, getting her to open up about something important that she’s done, how’s she’s helped people, how she’s healed others, while Doug and Grant attempt to switch the terms of the conversation to the business at hand, celebrating their latest money-making project.
Eventually, the healer recognizes Doug for the hedonist he is and calls him out.
“I think all your pleasures are built on others’ pain,” Beatriz tells Doug.
She questions his public behavior, his callousness, and his utter disregard for people beneath him. The two openly spar as the rest of the characters try to make peace as best they can before all hell breaks loose.
It’s a fascinating film filled with dialogue that’s so realistic it’s often dull and uninteresting in and of itself. The interest lies in watching the characters struggle in an uncomfortable situation, attempting to stay on Doug’s good side without alienating Beatriz.
Lithgow’s portrayal of Doug is delicious as we get to see him parry verbally with Hayek, attacking and defending himself against an opponent whom he feels is so many levels beneath him. Hayek’s performance is amazing as the healing artist struggling to remain true to herself while being good to her host.
But it’s Britton, who I think has the underrated, yet extremely difficult job of depicting Kathy’s struggle and she deserves much praise for her efforts. While Beatriz and Doug are fleshed out in the script, Kathy is more of a blank slate, and Britton’s interpretation is effective at turning Kathy into a sympathetic character, despite being deluded about herself and weak.
As the host, Kathy wants her guests to get along. She sees herself as open-minded and liberal, yet she clearly enjoys her lifestyle which comes at the cost of the poor.
Near the beginning of the film, Kathy tells her friends that she thinks she was connected to Beatriz in a past life. Either they had a relationship as family, or close friends, she doesn’t quite know, but it feels like they are connected souls, she tells them. Later after Beatriz confronts Doug and things get way out of hand, Kathy looks at her incredulously and says, “I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.” “You don’t know me,” Beatriz responds.
And that is the theme of this Everyman film. While Beatriz struggles to be gracious to her host. She can’t acquiesce while the party goers praise Doug’s exploitative nature. It would be immoral. Kathy and the others just want the dinner to go smoothly, but Beatriz can’t sit idly by. It’s the choice we know the others will make, and that is the saddest part of this film for me.
Few of us are as powerful and hedonistic as Doug, and few are as liberal and as healing as Beatriz. We are the guests. What would we do? What choices will we make as we confront the costs of our pleasures and comforts? How will we rationalize our choices? That is the great question that all of us will answer through our actions, whether we intend to take sides, or not.