In the mid-1970s, as President Richard Nixon resigned over scrutiny of his Watergate cover-up, the mounting distrust in government institutions was palpable. The story dominated the news, but perhaps more importantly, it permeated our popular culture. Consider the following: 1974’s “Chinatown,” which focuses on a corrupt government deal; 1975’s “Jaws,” which includes a mayor who prioritizes his town’s profits over safety; 1976’s “All the President’s Men,” which documents the Washington Post’s investigation into the scandal; and even 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which the government evacuates a large portion of the American West under false pretenses to communicate with aliens. The story’s threads were as unavoidable in cinemas as they were on front pages and on the anchor desk.
In the decades since, it seems our country hasn’t witnessed a political event as transformative and omnipresent as Nixon’s final months, at least until now. For better or worse, the election of Donald Trump is and will be accompanied by a promising future of protest art. A laundry list of musical acts has already put out tracks that explicitly target the regime and its supporters’ culture, but filmmaking takes longer by necessity. It’s been two years and some change since that fateful escalator ride in Trump Tower and the chickens, as the saying goes, have come home to roost.
“Beatriz at Dinner,” the latest film from director Miguel Arteta (“Cedar Rapids”) and regular collaborating writer Mike White (“School of Rock”), is a biting comedy that marks a fine beginning to this new wave of Trump commentaries. Beatriz, coolly played by Salma Hayek (“Tale of Tales”), a Mexican-born “spiritual healer” finds her car broken down at the mansion of two very (very) wealthy clients, Cathy (Connie Britton, “American Crime Story”) and Grant (David Warshofsky, “Now You See Me 2”), who with two partners just closed a massive commercial real estate deal and intend on celebrating with a dinner party. Beatriz is, out of courtesy, extended an invitation by Cathy. As the dinner progresses, animosity between Beatriz and one of the guests, Doug Strutt (a winning John Lithgow, “The Crown”), grows to a fever pitch.
Strutt is a Trump-esque character whose similarities to our president are numerous: He is a real estate developer who just owns buildings (and doesn’t build them, so he says), which echoes Trump’s own empire of leasing his name to projects. He puts a premium on job creation over environmental health, he seems fascinated by illegal immigration, he’s on his third wife and he even hunts big game, posing with his prey in photographs like Trump’s son. Even his name, a first name starting with a d-o and a last name containing the string t-r-u, echoes our president’s. Also attending the dinner are Strutt’s wife Jeana (Amy Landecker, “Doctor Strange”) and a third couple, Alex (Jay Duplass, “Transparent”) and Shannon (Chloë Sevigny, “Love & Friendship”).
Arteta’s film is a cathartic lampooning of the evidently dominant political ideology in America today, but the film doesn’t reach the heights of the best social satires. Like a lowercase “Get Out” (a sort of companion piece that bests the film at hand in both creativity and potency), “Beatriz at Dinner” sets its targets on a culture of well-meaningness, of privileged folks who believe their actions provide a good for a community but don’t quite realize how much they mess life up for others. And yet, the film spends its time primarily on (justifiably) lambasting Strutt while all but ignoring the complacency of the other guests, whose subtler racism and anthropocentrism provides a foundation for Strutt’s perverted ‘curiosity’ about immigration and obsession with taking life through hunting. By setting its targets on the clear villain, White and Arteta miss a critical opportunity to address a larger problem. As it is, the film plays more as polemic rather than considered criticism.
Still, Arteta’s direction is deft, and he is able to carry the film through excellent visual storytelling. The guests’ Maserati and Lincoln SUV dwarf Beatriz’s squat periwinkle hatchback in the driveway, just as Beatriz stands a full head shorter than every single person at the party. As the wives congregate and walk through the backyard, set against a stunning backdrop of the Pacific, she trails them cautiously, listening in but not contributing to their frivolous conversation. We see the party both through her eyes and a sympathetic observer, as she often stands blurred in the foreground, splitting a room in two as she watches with remove. White’s larger story arc can be a bit dull, but he often shows a knack for constructing dialogue in a contentious room, in which the slightest interruption is as political as a protest.