A Dinner Party. Who would have thought so many intriguing movies would revolve around this jumping off point. Beatriz at Dinner is the newest entrée, and it’s not one I’ll soon forget: the 7 dinner guests, the Newport Beach house where it takes place, and the conversation among equals and one accidental guest who doesn’t belong there.
Beatriz is a healer, a massage therapist who treats cancer patients at a holistic no-frills clinic in L.A. She’s the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve and in her face–particularly her expressive eyes. Originally from a small Mexican village, she’s lived in the U.S. for many years, and she’s at the home of a wealthy client when her car breaks down and she has to wait for a friend to get off work and tow her home. Cathy, the client, invites her to stay for a small dinner party, and husband Grant reluctantly agrees. If only because Beatriz previously treated/bonded with their teenage daughter, who’s now in remission and away at college.
The reason for the dinner is to celebrate a new real estate deal, and billionaire developer Doug Strutt is the guest of honor. Alex is the young attorney who just got a green light for Doug’s latest project, and Grant is playing host to the men and their wives. He’s gotten rich as the owner of the company that builds Doug’s projects: hotels, shopping malls, golf courses. Doug, however, is the only billionaire in the room, which means it isn’t truly a conversation among equals. As Doug says in his convivial toast, “Alex, if any of those efforts were illegal, I don’t know you, nor was I even here tonight.” Into their well-heeled celebration walks Beatriz, quietly at first, and then with gathering steam. Emboldened by her guileless curiosity–and a few glasses of wine–she seeks to know and understand these people, and she doesn’t much like what she hears.
The film is described as a black comedy. I’m inclined to describe it as a drama with touches of humor, because the humor is as tension-filled as the drama. I don’t mean that as a criticism. I loved the film.
At its core, this isn’t a story about the haves vs. the have-nots. That factors in, but it’s more of a sub-theme. Beatriz doesn’t have much in the way of material possessions. She lives in a small house in a poor section of L.A. with a menagerie of beloved pets (one, a goat, was recently killed by a neighbor), but the material world isn’t what drives her. After Doug boasts about his latest Big Game kill (a Rhino) and shows a gruesome photo on his phone, Beatriz reacts:
“You think killing is hard? Try healing. You can break something in two seconds, but it can take forever to fix something.”
As it turns out, killing an endangered species isn’t the least of Doug’s sins. During the course of building his global empire, he’s left behind a large swath of environmental and social disasters. In a private confrontation with Beatriz, he says: “The world doesn’t need your feelings. It needs jobs, it needs money–it needs what I do.”
Of course the world needs jobs and money. For me, the question is: does it have to be done with blatant disregard for the law? With blatant disregard for the environment? With blatant disregard for the poor people of the world, particularly if the poor people will be made worse off? Doug goes on to say: “The world is dying. What are you going to do? You should try to enjoy yourself.”
I’m all for enjoying myself. In fact, I wish I were having more fun right now. Scientifically Doug is correct. The Earth is dependent on the Sun, and once our Sun star inevitably burns out, we’re done for–billions of years from now. Yes, you and I won’t be alive, but future generations still have a lot of living to do. Here’s something that’s been in the Dallas news, and I’d be surprised if it’s not happening in many other cities; large swaths of trees destroyed by company property owners without seeking the required ok from the city. This has happened three times in the last several weeks. Trees that were protected under the city’s tree ordinance. In one instance, the loss of 70 protected trees has left the neighborhood behind it much worse off. Instead of pretty foliage that buffers views of a highway, the neighborhood gets to enjoy increased noise and visits from all the animals that used to live among the trees. It’s easier for the owners to chop down the trees first and answer questions later.
I’m beginning to sound preachy, but Beatriz at Dinner isn’t preachy. It moves merrily and not-so-merrily along. The ending builds to a crescendo. There’s a twist and a final twist, but the power of the movie lies in the sum of its parts and the performances of the ensemble cast, even though the meatiest roles go to Salma Hayak as Beatriz and John Lithgow as Doug. It’s a film that leaves you wondering. The conversation shouldn’t end with the movie.