One of my favorite films of recent years is Chuck and Buck, which was released in 2000. Written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, it presented a witty and altogether optimistic view of America. While it dealt frankly with its theme of the damage caused by sexual repression, especially in childhood, it made you feel good about living in a country where a confused and distressed person can actually work through his problems by relying on the best instincts of other people. You realized how precious that liberty was, especially since somebody like Buck – a benign and sensitive man – would probably face criminal charges if he lived anywhere else.
Now, in 2017, White and Arteta apparently feel that that America is gone. Their new film, Beatriz at Dinner, presents a society where we can no longer rely on the best instincts of our neighbors. Ideological walls have been built that block those feelings, and we can no longer reach out to each other the way we once did. We seem to have broken up into two camps, each of which has publicly embraced values that are totally repugnant to the other, and the absence of mutual trust paralyzes us.
Salma Hayek plays the title role, a Mexican-born woman in Los Angeles married to an American, who has abandoned her. She is a licensed masseuse and physical therapist, and struggles to maintain a home with many animals, including her beloved goats, and a car that’s ready for the junkyard. Hayek presents her as an intelligent, fiercely spiritual woman with an uncompromising sense of justice, but also a person who is altogether traumatized by her own injuries from the past. She easily conflates those bitter memories with the greedy, amoral conduct of Doug Strutt, played by John Lithgow. Strutt is a billionaire real estate developer, and he is so broadly conceived as a Donald Trump-surrogate that I can’t imagine anyone so dense as to miss the connection. In fact the only deviation from total identity that I could perceive is that Strutt likes to shoot his trophy animals himself – instead of paying someone else to do it – and that his third wife does not have an accent.
The set-up is that Beatriz is stranded in the home of a rich client, Kathy, and is invited to stay for dinner, over the objections of the woman’s husband. It seems the dinner is a special occasion honoring Strutt, who is backing a multi-million dollar deal that should make the woman’s husband very wealthy, and he doesn’t want anything to mess it up.
Well, Kathy’s husband was right. Strutt shows himself to be unspeakably mean-spirited and cruel. But he is not just an ignorant boor with lots of money. Lithgow plays him as cultivated, with a highly developed sense of class differences. As if sensing the unexpected guest’s vulnerabilities, he takes delight in destroying whatever Beatriz takes value in. It seems that whatever he builds destroys jobs, evicts people from their homes and poisons the environment.
There are several minor roles, including the host and hostess, another couple and Strutt’s wife, but this is essentially a two-character show. Correction: it’s only one character, really. Strutt is not a true character at all, but a composite of every amoral, selfish impulse that threatens to destroy society. Lithgow gives him a certain panache, true, but what we see is a walking ego that has been spoiled since infancy.
No, the story’s impact depends on Beatriz, and Hayek comes through brilliantly. At first timid and apologetic, she gradually takes Strutt’s vain boasting as a challenge to be confronted without fear. Repeatedly we are shown Hayek’s face in close-up; virtually an expressionless mask. But the heat of her growing rage comes through.
There is little in the way of nuance or dramatic surprise. It is a simple tale, short for a feature; less than eighty-five minutes. In fact, the first half hour seems padded. But the tension grows, and the final scene brings the story into sharp focus. Beatriz is an unlikely surrogate for traditional American values: foreign-born, a believer in reincarnation and a kind of spiritual pantheism, she satisfies nevertheless as a symbol of our moral outrage. Which is why her final act is so depressing. She sees herself as having only two choices, each of which leads to the death of a different person. One of those choices she only imagines, then she takes the other.
But I think that White and Arteta want us to see both choices as equally futile. I respect that point of view, but am still saddened that these two talented collaborators have found so little to celebrate in today’s America.