F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” That pretty well sums up the thesis of Beatriz at Dinner. I’ve read some reviewers who call this the first film to deal with the Trump era. There are certainly elements of the film that make it applicable to today’s political situation, but this film’s social commentary is really much more about the divisions that exist in society and the visions that compete for the soul of our culture.
Beatriz (Salma Hayak) is a holistic healer who spends most of her time dealing with sick and dying patients. One afternoon she drives a significant distance for an appointment with Cathy (Connie Britton), the mother of a patient Beatriz had worked with in the past to give a massage. When Beatriz’s car breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner, even though it is a business dinner at which her husband is hosting Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a very wealthy developer who is starting a new project that has taken some political manipulation to gain approval.
While there are others at the dinner (all in the upper one percent), the real conflict is between Beatriz and Doug. They represent very different ways of seeing the world and how we are to relate to it. Beatriz is a very spiritual person, in a New Age manner; Doug is the embodiment of materialism. Beatriz views the world as needing healing; Doug feels comfortable destroying environments for his own gain or pleasure. Doug represents all the privilege that the wealth represents. Beatriz came to the U.S. as a child, in large part because a new resort displaced her family from their beautiful seaside town.
One might think this set up is destined to be a comedy, especially since director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White are known for comedies (and it is listed as a comedy on IMDB). However, this is so dark that the term ‘comedy’ hardly seems to fit. It is uncomfortable to watch at times because the nerves of this film are so close to the surface. Beatriz is something of an empath and brings the suffering of all the people and animals she has comforted into the mix. Doug’s smugness seems to make him immune from any criticism.
This is really a film about the American Dream and two different ideas of what that means. For Doug (and the others who depend on him for their own fortunes), the American Dream is about the accumulation of wealth and being able to enjoy all the pleasures that wealth can afford. But for Beatriz, the American Dream means the ability to bring goodness into a world that is filled with pain and suffering. This American Dream is seen in her relationship to the goats she keeps (one of which was killed by a neighbor). It is about connections and care.
The election of Donald Trump did not create this conflict in our culture, but it certainly has brought it to the fore and perhaps even exacerbated the differences. This film is clearly on the side of Beatriz’s vision of the Dream. But Doug and the others are not just straw men set up as targets. Cathy in particular seems to want to be a good person, but is at a loss trying to understand what is bothering Beatriz. This is after all her dream life, how can others not want the same? That is really the crux of our societal struggle: how can others not see the American Dream as we see it? Beatriz at Dinner provides us a chance to think about the Dream and how we should bring it to reality—and for whom.