She’s not even supposed to be at the dinner party; she was just at the house to give the hostess a massage. She’s a visitor here, because she lives the kind of life where she holds her breath every time she starts the car, wondering with every sputter if it’ll make it to ignition, and today, well, it did not. He, on the other hand, arrives in a chauffeured black SUV with his much-younger third wife on his arm, and it goes without saying that it has been a long time since he’s felt that fear when he turned the key (if he ever has), or even turned the key himself.
Her name is Beatriz, and she’s a hugger and a healer, and she’s played by Salma Hayek as an earnest woman tossed into a den of cynics, and worse. His name is Doug Strutt, he’s played by John Lithgow, and yes, he sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump; “I have opinions,” he explains, when she recognizes him vaguely, “and because I have money, people listen.” This is after he thinks she’s part of the staff, but before he asks if she “came here legally.” So there’s your question, moviegoer: If you ended up at a dinner party with Donald Trump, would you smile and be agreeable? Or would you make a scene?
That’s the conundrum at the center of Beatriz at Dinner, the latest from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, who previously collaborated on Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, and a few episodes of White’s HBO series Enlightened. Those are all, to some extent, stories about outsiders, and Beatriz leans hard on this theme both narratively and visually; early in the “little dinner party, y’know, a few people,” Arteta frames Beatriz from behind, observing her hosts and guests’ transactions and interactions, unnoticed, and then places her in wide shots, set apart from the group, her shortness accentuated by her sneakers (the men are tall, and the women wear heels).
Eventually, though, she is acknowledged and welcomed (to a point), but because she’s not of this world, she doesn’t know its rules. When they sit down to dinner, she takes over the conversation, and Arteta’s camera lingers on everyone’s distinct discomfort with what she’s saying and how she engages with Doug; the eye contact between the hosts (Connie Britton and David Washofsky, both very good) is a little symphony of silent accusations and apologies. You see, because he is semi-famous, and fabulously wealthy, and (in many ways) responsible for the comfortable lifestyles they all enjoy, they humor him. Everyone chuckles at his little jokes, and lets him slide. Beatriz does not smile and let him slide.
Beatriz at Dinner is a slender movie (83 minutes, with credits), and that’s as it should be – it’s a short story, really, about polite society and unspoken power, keenly observed and delicately played. That it has turned out to be such a clear political allegory nearly knocks the slim picture off-balance; it was shot when the man was running but certainly wouldn’t win, that could never happen, yet it did, and when the film premiered at Sundance on the weekend of his inauguration, it played like an open wound.
Now, it has an overwhelming feel of quiet resignation. There is some satisfaction to Beatriz looking this man squarely in the eye and informing him, with a steady voice, “all your pleasures are built on others’ pain.” And there’s something to be said about the fact that he keeps following her out of rooms and trying to make nice – because on some level, he does need to be liked, or at least respected. But he keeps calling her “honey,” and assuring the others that he’s a “good sport.” “I can take it,” he insists. “I’m a big boy.” Of course he can. But the people he harms can’t just be “good sports,” and often, they’re not rich or self-satisfied enough to just “take it.”
The film’s closing scenes, which I won’t spoil, are a bit of a puzzle. It feels like Arteta and White are setting us up for some sort of humiliation, a big pay-off of some kind or another – or maybe not, because Beatriz may be in the same room as Doug Strutt, but she’s ultimately toothless, powerless against what he is, and what he represents. And aren’t we all? And no matter what she says or does in that room, we’ll still leave the theater, and Donald Trump will still be president. It’s a feel-bad ending, any way you slice it.
“Beatriz at Dinner” is out Friday in limited release.