Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

Forev


This road trip is no picnic.

This road trip is no picnic.

(2013) Comedy (Gravitas) Noel Wells, Matt Mider, Amanda Bauer, Timmy L’Hereux, Chuck McCarthy, Dominic DeVore, Gina Gallego, Timothy Charlton, Gary G. “Thang” Johnson, Barb Mackerer, Hunter Hill, Pedro Lopez, Logan Strobel, Naaman Esquivel, Connor Morris, Marian McGinnis, Jon Katz, Chris Merchant, Kate Johnson. Directed by Molly Green and James Leffler

Florida Film Festival 2014

When you’re young, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be impulsive. If you think about things too much, you lose the moment and miss out on some fairly amazing experiences. Of course, if you think about things, you might actually save yourself from some pretty sorry situations.

Pete (Mider) is minding his own business, eating pizza in his apartment after a hard day’s work when who barges in but his neighbor Sophie (Wells), an actress. However, she doesn’t realize she’s barged in – she’s too busy making out passionately with her hookup du jour and thinks she’s in her own apartment. After Pete clears his throat, HDJ heads into the bathroom and Sophie hears him tell his friends he’ll be joining them in about 15 minutes after he’s done. Sophie decides that’s an offer that she can pretty much pass up without a problem.

After an audition for a hot dog commercial doesn’t go as well as she might have hoped, she decides to hang out with Pete whom she knows only marginally. His carpet is quite comfortable as it turns out and she is loathe to leave it. Pete says offhandedly “Since you’re going to be here anyway, we might as well get married.” I know, lame, right? Still from such small acorns mighty oaks may grow.

Sadly for Sophie, Pete has to run an errand and Sophie decides to tag along. The errand turns out to be a six hour drive from L.A. to Phoenix to pick up Pete’s sister Jess (Bauer) from college. On the way there, to a killer indie rock soundtrack, Pete and Sophie decide Pete’s marriage proposal wasn’t a bad idea at all. Voila, they’re engaged!

Jess is rightfully incredulous at her brother’s newfound relationship status and incredulity grows into downright hostility when she discovers how long the happy couple have been together. Jess, who was been in a relationship with a promising baseball player whom Pete worshipped for awhile, also has a relationship status change of her own – she’s gone from “involved” to “it’s complicated” to “single.” It’s times like these when you really need Facebook to let everyone know what’s going on.

A previous mishap involving an armadillo leads to the proverbial car breakdown in the desert, stranding them in a town so small that even the one horse has grown bored and hitchhiked to L.A. Sophie gets the surprising news that she got the part in the commercial after all and has to be in L.A. in two days to shoot it. When Pete gets into a fight with a local hitting on his fiancée (after said fiancée eggs him on) , Pete and Sophie head back to the hotel for some awkward cuddling while Jess finds herself a bearded guy to hang out with. When she doesn’t come back to the hotel room, Pete and Sophie go on a desperate search, the clock ticking on Sophie’s job all the while.

If you see enough independent films, you are going to find this not only familiar but downright “been there done that.” It has enough indie clichés to fill a hipster film festival; the cute couple acting zany and childish, the indie rock soundtrack that substitutes for a Greek chorus, the young people at least one of whom is an artist marching to their own drummer and so on. Throw in the clichés of modern romantic comedies and you have a case of cliché overload.

The young cast is actually quite good and have some decent chemistry – Mider and Wells both attended the University of Texas with the co-directors, so they have known each other awhile. That serves them well in terms of their banter and interaction. The script relies heavily on charm and has its share of funny moments.

The biggest problem here is that after awhile you start feeling the distinct need to stand up in your seat, shake your fist at the screen and scream at the top of your lungs “REAL PEOPLE DON’T ACT THIS WAY!!!” And they don’t. Personally, I think the film would have been far more effective if they’d chosen instead to make the whole marriage thing a running joke between Sophie and Pete which gradually becomes something real. Instead, you get the sense that these are two dim bulbs who think that marriage and relationships leading to marriage are something so easy you can just snap your fingers and it happens. Jess gets it but you get the sense that she’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Thus.

I do think Green and Leffler have some decent instincts but they need to find their own voice. The movie relies too much on established indie moves, so much so that the few moves of its own that it shows are kind of lost in the shuffle. A movie like this one hits the target more readily if you can recognize the characters in it. Instead, we get the hoary old indie song and dance about 20-something hipsters trying to impress somebody with how spontaneous they are. I get that I sound like a “Get off My Lawn, you young punks” critic but I don’t have a problem with spontaneity or young people – I have a problem with those elements in a movie are not given enough thought or depth to make the movie resonate better.

Incidentally, the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. A VOD and home video release has been scheduled. You can pre-order the movie on DVD/Blu-Ray beginning on May 1 by clicking on the photo which will take you to the movie’s website.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent laughs. Attractive leads with lots of potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many indie-cute clichés. Characters not acting like real people. Predictable

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wells joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season as a featured player.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Doomsdays