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

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Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies