The creative team of Arteta and White pen the first ode to the age of Trump
When did “privilege” become such a negative buzzword? I suppose it was always there in the definition, which speaks to “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Yet, somehow, there was the sense that privilege could be earned, or at least that’s what I remember taking away from the idea.
Of course, now, privilege is synonymous with being pampered and spoiled, evoking a more personal indictment. Privilege speaks to an entire class or segment of people indulging in and enjoying a sense of entitlement. There is an offhanded casualness to the term. No one dares to own up to bearing the brand of privilege, unless, of course they welcome being seen as a villain. That generally comes when you have such a degree of wealth and power that labels have no meaning anymore.
Take, for instance, a character like Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), the modern day robber baron at the center of the Miguel Arteta-Mike White comic drama “Beatriz at Dinner.” Strutt is a self-described builder, a corporate developer who pools the resources of others for projects and puts his name on eventual properties. He’s not in charge of the actual erecting of these buildings and he’s too far enough removed from the day-to-day realities of these endeavors to care about the impact his work might have on actual people – home and landowners who get displaced by his projects, the workers and their families who lose out if and when a project fails, protesters who fight his ill-conceived developments because of the inevitable negative consequences.
Strutt is a walking advertisement for the Republican capitalist, driven exclusively by his own privileged concerns. He walks the Earth, not like Caine (David Carradine) from the television series “Kung Fu” or even Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) from “Pulp Fiction” who talks about going on a Caine-like journey, but instead like a man who owns the planet and everything on it exists to please him.
He’s a pampered man, thoroughly worshiped and adored for his ruthlessness. Deferred to in all things by any and everyone in his company, even if such efforts force others to compromise their own sense of morality and values. There are no rules that matter in the bubble in which Strutt lives.
That is, until Beatriz (Salma Hayek) wanders into his sphere of influence. She is a healer, a woman in union with the universal spirit of the Earth and its people. Already I know this sounds New Agey and off-putting, and it all too plainly sets her in opposition to Strutt, in a cartoonish and simplistic way, but Arteta and White know what they are doing here. We see and get to know Beatriz first, in a grounded way as she works with patients at a cancer treatment facility and then on a more private basis as a freelance practitioner with Cathy (Connie Britton), a wealthy client. Before that, we watch her caring for a goat that she keeps in her bedroom, in an attempt to shelter it from the wrath of her neighbors.
But Beatriz is not a saintly ideal; she is too intimate, as much a product of her culture as Strutt and her polite façade masks a pushiness that is a kissing cousin to the entitlement we see in Strutt as well. Yet, we also get glimpses of a metaphysical definition of this woman that connect her to something larger. There is a ferocious struggle in her that is fascinating to observe.
After experiencing car trouble, Beatriz accepts an invitation to dine with her employer and their business partners, including Strutt. For a time, Beatriz believes that Strutt might have been the developer behind a project that ruined her community in Mexico and so she embarks on a mission of sorts to hold him to some level of responsibility. She realizes that he was not directly to blame for that situation, but he has so much other blood on his hands and flowing throughout his spirit that he should face some kind of reckoning.
Does privilege bestow a life-long pass on its recipients? That’s the question at the heart of “Beatriz at Dinner,” one that Arteta and White refuse to answer literally. Their film, while rooted in the practicality of a moment, aspires to seek a greater justice that may not satisfy our material definitions and sensibilities, but it offers the tantalizing promise of soulful nourishment that comes close to redeeming the idea of privilege.
Rated: R; Grade: B+