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'Beatriz at Dinner': Manifesto Under Glass

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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There isn't any doubt what writer Mike White had in mind when he penned "Beatriz at Dinner."
His insightful parable, brought to life by Miguel Arteta's skillful direction and a superb cast starring Salma Hayek in the title role, takes place at the very crux of humanity's social ills.
Expect diagnosis, but alas, no cure. You see, beneath the dramatic layers, both disingenuously polite and blatantly hateful, it's about the money. As my rich big sister Ann says, "It's always about the money, especially if they say it's not about the money."
Oh, it wasn't much different before we invented the stuff. Back then, the love of pelts was probably the root of all evil. But do a little anthropological research and you can explain how, after Oog decided he no longer wanted to share his mastodon catch with Kroc, it came to be decided that capitalism in its nascent stages was the best harnesser of human greed. Economists have argued the whys, wherefores, truths and fallacies of that ever since. Folks who have landed on the better side of the tracks don't like the term. It's called class struggle.
Here, played out at a dinner party attended by six haves and one accidental have-not portrayed by Hayek, it's "The Communist Manifesto" in three courses, over either beef tenderloin or the halibut -- your choice -- followed by a dessert of dialectical materialism. The tension is rather fantastic. We have all been there -- a gathering of souls so disparate in culture, beliefs and economic status that even the likeness in species defies connection. While the doings abashed this bleeding heart hypocrite, I'm curious what my pals on the other side of the aisle might think.
Representing today's permutation of the robber baron and proudly making no bones about it, John Lithgow is as heinously dislikeable as hotel developer Doug Strutt as Hayek's holistic medical practitioner, a Mexican immigrant, is sweetly sympathetic. At this dinner to celebrate his latest entrepreneurial conquest with the two partners who helped facilitate it, Strutt, oft-reviled by the press for his scurrilous business practices, is hardly able to hide his disdain for this commoner who, after her car breaks down, is invited by the hostess/patient to break bread.
The awkwardness extends to the male associates and the three wives, all of whom ultimately show how cluelessly disassociated they are from the real world. It is at once laughable, pitiful, guilt-rending and oh so true. While we personally feel sorry for Beatriz, the ultimate flower child devoted to the well-being of humankind, and in some charitable degree for Doug's complicit lackeys, it's all a metaphor, a splash-in- the-face, unflattering selfie. Once again, as cartoonist Walt Kelley said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Now, don't get me wrong. As Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs asserts in "The Natural" (1984) when Robert Prosky's bribing judge asks the baseball phenom if he has anything against the almighty dollar, I like a buck as well as the next guy. The thing is, there's a difference between understanding that the current economic system has won favor because we know of no better, and revering it as a recognized religion.
Doug and his kind don't care who they trample. They've even come to enjoy the game, seeing it as the Social Darwinist successor to survival of the fittest. They approach class warfare fully prepared with a rationalization for every wrong perpetrated against society, honing their ability over the millennia to convince some of their victims, promised a grab at the brass ring, to spread the trickle-down gospel. Never has it been so evident that, in order for a very small minority to exercise their selfish will over the masses, they needn't be smarter, just cannier and insensitive.
Occupying the other end of the spectrum, Beatriz, who isn't without the prejudices and folkloric beliefs ingrained from eons of oppression, thinks she recognizes Doug. Mind you, not just who he is today, but who he has been over the centuries. Her eerie vibes permeate the beautiful Newport Beach manse. Sticking out like a sore thumb via dress and comportment, she is initially defended only by Connie Britton's Cathy, the inviting hostess grateful for Beatriz's role in helping cure her cancer-ridden daughter.
Naturally, things go awry and, in the process, whole bunches of feelings are exposed. Playing on two levels laced with candid, Shakespearean sarcasm, there is the beleaguered Beatriz, mortified by self-important Strutt's braggadocio and tales of conquest over his fellow man, and then there is the scathing indictment of the socioeconomic reality Beatriz's plight represents. We get it, adding grist to our determination for a kinder world, but despair that in all probability those who would benefit most from joining "Beatriz at Dinner" couldn't care less if she starved.
"Beatriz at Dinner," rated R, is a Roadside Attractions release directed by Miguel Arteta and stars Salma Hayek, John Lithgow and Connie Britton. Running time: 82 minutes
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